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Huge protest in Macau echoes Taiwan's Sunflower activism

Recently, as night fell on a Chinese-speaking city in East Asia, thousands of people took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of a government policy with their glowing smartphones. They raised their arms, LED-lit phones in hand, and began to sing in unison. It was a historic moment. Some are already describing it as the city's democratic awakening.

Judging from the photos alone, it would be easy to mistake this protest for the March 30 demonstration in Taipei in which tens of thousands of Sunflower protesters sang “Island Sunrise” (島嶼天光) in a similarly iconic moment. But the town in question is the mainland Chinese city of Macau, a former Portuguese colony of around 550,000, and not a city traditionally known for its political protests.

Thousands of demonstrators, many of them young people, surrounded the city's Legislative Assembly on Tuesday in protest of a proposed bill that would give top officials grand retirement packages and any incumbent chief executive (the city's top official) immunity from criminal prosecution. The demonstration came despite the government's offer to suspend the proposal, pressed as they were by a 20,000-strong rally on Sunday and one of Macau's biggest protests since its handover to China in 1999. Macau Chief Executive Dr. Fernando Chui Sai-on finally gave in and announced the withdrawal of the bill yesterday.

It is a highly unlikely turn of events for a city described by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) as “usually placid.” A long colonial history, a small population and a highly centralized economy have made Macau somehow immune to political debates. The government is often seen by locals as an employer (government agencies and casinos are the two key employers in the city).

Since the Portuguese colonial government in Macau gave in to pro-Beijing protesters during the Dec. 23 Incident in 1966, Macau has been administered in large part by pro-Chinese organizations. Beijing's takeover of the enclave has been decidedly smoother compared to Hong Kong. An estimated 500,000 took to the streets in Hong Kong in 2003 in protest of a proposed anti-subversion law that was later shelved. A similar law passed without much fuss in Macau in 2008.

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