Amid little suspense, Macau chooses its first Chinese leader

He will be administrator when Beijing takes control of colony in December


MACAU -- For 442 years, Portuguese officials have ruled this spit of land on the southeast coast of China. Yesterday, Macau got its first Chinese leader. A committee appointed by Beijing chose a local banker, Edmund Ho, to administer the colony after it reverts to Chinese rule in December.

Ho's ascension had been widely expected here. He is the de facto leader of Macau's Chinese business community and has close, long-standing ties to the Chinese government.

The lack of suspense was palpable as the 199 committee members -- a lone Portuguese among them -- filed to the front of a wood-paneled auditorium and deposited their ballots in a box. After 30 minutes of counting, Ho was declared the winner with 82 percent of the vote.

The meticulously choreographed ceremony recalled the one in Hong Kong more than two years ago when shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa was selected as the chief executive of the former British colony.

But unlike Hong Kong, where demonstrators burned tires to protest Tung's selection, people here had few reservations. Most regard Ho, the 44-year-old scion of a prominent Chinese family and a longtime member of the legislature, as the obvious choice for chief executive.

"There were no real alternatives," said Ricardo Pinto, the editor of Ponto Final, a Portuguese-language newspaper here. "If you look around the local political scene, there is no one with the same stature."

Macau is in a deep recession, which has been aggravated by a violent gang war for control of its lucrative gambling trade. Many people here believe the departing Portuguese have given up trying to control the violence, and most are more relieved than alarmed about returning to China.

"I fully understand that the people of Macau are concerned about law and order," Ho said at a news conference after his selection. But he said it was too early to offer details on how he would tackle the problem.

Ho pledged to defend "one country, two systems" -- the arrangement under which Macau, like Hong Kong, is supposed to function as a semiautonomous region in China with its own legal system.

"With the support of our motherland, the people of Macau shall enjoy a high degree of autonomy and become self-governing," said Ho, who switched easily between Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.

Despite Ho's skills, people worry that Macau will be swamped by China. Its civil service is not as well developed as that of Hong Kong. Chinese officials have expressed anger at Macau's crime rate. China has sent troops to the colony, ignoring the objections of Portuguese officials, who said their agreement with China does not provide for a military garrison.

Gazing down from a dais during the ballot counting were two aging men who may wield more power over Macau than Ho: Qian Qichen, the deputy prime minister of China who is overseeing the handover, and Stanley Ho, a Hong Kong tycoon who owns the colony's nine casinos. (He is not related to the chief executive.)

Despite his allegiance to Beijing, Ho is also popular with the Portuguese, who regard him as tactful and reliable. Macau's governor, Gen. Vasco Rocha Vieira, warmly welcomed his selection.

While Ho is respected, his father, Ho Yin, is venerated. The elder Ho, who died in 1983, dominated Macau society for decades.

"For a long time, Edmund has been living under the shadow and patronage of his father," said Fok Kai Cheong, a professor at the University of Macau. "It's time for him to prove himself."

Pub Date: 5/16/99

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