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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 February 2008, 02:51 GMT
Casinos and greed spark Macau fears
By Vaudine England
BBC News, Hong Kong

Ao Man-long (file image)
The case of Ao Man-long has shocked people in Macau
When Macau's casino monopoly was abolished in 2001, US and other investors built massive casino complexes on land reclaimed from the sea.

This boom radically changed the skyline and economy of the Chinese-run city - it now makes more in gambling revenues than the strip in Las Vegas.

But critics say daily life and values have deteriorated.

The case of Ao Man-long, the tiny territory's former minister of transport and public works, offers a snapshot of this dramatic process.

Macau's highest court has just put Ao away for 27 years, convicting him of numerous counts of corruption, bribery, abuse of power and money-laundering.

Ao oversaw a huge boom in construction from 1999 until his arrest in December 2006.

Investigators say Ao also managed to collect about US$100m (50m) in a series of accounts and properties around the world - about 57 times what he and his family could legitimately have earned.

Testimony during his trial showed how he chose winning contractors and took large bribes from bidders for his interventions.

Lingering questions

At first glance, the case seems a triumph for Macau's stated wish to keep business and government clean.

But Macanese say the case has only lifted the corner of a carpet that continues to hide all manner of malfeasance.

Across Macanese media the trial has provoked questions: Why is Ao the only former minister to be caught? Is Ao's heavy sentence the result of a political trade-off, is he merely the fall-guy?

How is it possible that he could have acted so blatantly for so long without the knowledge of other members of government? Why were so many witnesses - and other suspects - unavailable in court?

Lion statue at the front of the new MGM Grand Macau
Deregulation has encouraged the opening of new casinos

Few in Macau seem to believe that corruption started and stopped with one man.

"We are talking about one of the largest graft cases in town. It must definitely have involved more than one government official, if not an entire syndicate," pro-democracy lawmaker Au Kam-san told reporters.

Throughout the trial, revelations appeared substantial at first, but then hollow.

Take Ao's "friendly notes", as they were described - his record of payoffs with numbers and code names for the amounts and companies involved.

When shown in court, a series of entries were blacked out to be indecipherable.

On another day in court, one witness said the corruption was far beyond anything seen before 1999, when Macau was still Portuguese.

Prosecutors say they are still seeking Ao's wife, Chan Meng-ieng, believed to have fled Macau, and are preparing trials of Ao's father and brother.

'No respect'

But anger at the way Macau has been altered so much in such a short time is deep-seated enough to outlast the achievement of Ao's conviction.

Two large demonstrations last year highlighted a culture of corruption and greed.

Demonstration in Macau on 1 October 2007
Last October, thousands of people demonstrated in Macau
Protesters complained about inflation, rising property prices and the chaos of traffic now squeezing through Macau's cramped, over-built neighbourhoods.

Others see the malaise as much deeper.

"The students do not respect the teachers as before," said Jack Ng, from a group of teachers pleading for more attention to social ills.

"We have no way to teach them because they think they can earn more than us [in casinos] and think they have higher positions in society than us, so how can we teach them either in knowledge or a moral way?"

He and his colleagues believe the casinos are damaging society.

Concern in Beijing

Late last year, Chief Executive Edmund Ho admitted that the Ao trial had diminished his credibility.

He said the government needed to "strengthen the defence of human nature with legal, ethical and administrative devices" and would "push ahead with legal reforms related to commercial interests".

Analysts say pressure from Beijing was behind the successful prosecution, as central government officials feared unrest caused by rising social tensions.

Independent legislator Antonio Ng Kai-cheung said that if the government was really committed to stamping out corruption, it could.

"A very simple thing if Edmund Ho wanted, he should accept that the public construction budget should be examined and passed by the legislative assembly, just like in Hong Kong," said Mr Ng.

"[This is] a very important mechanism, it is very significant, directly related to the corruption," he said.

Macanese are also angry about what they call the "land give-aways" - the sale of land for less than market price - which can involve amounts of money far in excess of the bribe-taking documented in Ao's trial.

The legislator believes China is dissatisfied with the local administration in Macau.

Other analysts have suggested that Beijing regrets the extent to which foreign investors have been able to pour into Macau, earning profits from the many mainland Chinese coming to gamble on the only part of Chinese territory where it is legal.

"Edmund Ho will last to 2009 but the most important problem is that the central government is not confident in him, so many things cannot go right," said Ng Kai-cheung.

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