Macau, a former Portuguese-administered city that returned to Chinese rule in 1999, has denied entry to another pro-democracy politician from Hong Kong, while announcing plans to set up a branch of the Beijing-backed Confucius Institute at a key university, underlining the ruling Chinese Communist Party's growing influence there.
Caspar Wong, vice chairman of political party Third Side, has demanded an explanation from Macau authorities after he was turned away by immigration officers on an attempted visit to attend a financial forum.
"I think the main reason was my background as a member of a student association and a political party," Wong told RFA on Tuesday. "I have also made certain sensitive comments in public in Hong Kong."
Wong said he has previously called on Beijing to overturn the official verdict on the student-led pro-democracy movement of 1989, which occupied Tiananmen Square for several weeks and ended in an armed crackdown by the People's Liberation Army and large loss of life.
The Chinese government styled the movement a "counterrevolutionary rebellion," and has repeatedly ignored calls for redress from the relatives of those killed by the army on June 4.
Wong said his party is a moderate political group, however.
"We want to use peaceful, rational communication to solve problems, and nothing I said was particularly radical or extreme," he said. "I think a lot of people are worried that the central government is calling the shots when it comes to Macau."
"To judge from what happened in my case today, even the Third Side are being seen as the opposition, or as people who could endanger stability in Macau," Wong said.
Several pro-democracy politicians have been refused entry into Macau in recent months, usually with the same reference to "security."
Security threat cited
Democratic Party lawmaker and Polytechnic University lecturer Helena Wong said she was denied permission to enter Macau in August, en route to attend an exchange visit at the University of Macau, because she "posed a threat to the internal security and stability" of the city.
"The Macau authorities should give a public explanation of the evidence on which they base their decisions, so that their methods can be checked and debated," she said. "
Recent opinion polls have shown a marked decrease in public satisfaction with the performance of the Macau government, in particular with its record on improvement residents' standard of living and quality of life.
An employee who answered the phone at the office of the Macau government spokesperson said only written interview requests would be accepted.
Wong's refusal of entry came as the University of Macau announced it would set up a Confucius Institute, generally regarded as a key vehicle of Chinese "soft power" overseas.
The move is a response to the Macau government’s support for President Xi Jinping's ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, colloquially known as the new Silk Road.
The university said the institute would seek to turn the Cantonese-speaking city into an international hub of Chinese language learning for other countries, particularly Portuguese-speaking countries, the university said in a statement.
Courses in Chinese as a foreign language, offered by the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, will make up the core of the programs offered by the institute, it said.
Softer face of party propaganda
Choi Chi U, lecturer at the University of Macau, said Confucius Institutes are generally regarded as the softer face of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's overseas propaganda activities.
"The Confucius Institutes have always had a strongly political flavor in their work. That is indisputable," Choi told RFA. "They are part of China's rise as a great power."
"They certainly seem to have more to do with politics than they do with promoting Confucianism," he said.
He said the arrival of a Confucius Institute in Macau is intended as a reward to the city for its loyalty to Beijing's line on international affairs.
Once lauded as the jewel in the crown of China's "soft power" cultural diplomacy, Confucius Institutes have sprung up at hundreds of colleges and teaching institutions around the world, drawing criticisms from academics that they are also used as a base to preach the Chinese Communist Party's official political line beyond its borders.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has pointed out that the institutes are essentially an arm of the Chinese state, and that agreements signed with U.S. universities contained nondisclosure clauses and "unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China."
Confucius Institutes may appear at first glance to resemble the British Council, the Goethe Institut or the Alliance Franςaise, but their potential threat to academic freedom lies specifically in the fact that they base themselves out of universities, the AAUP said.
Politically sensitive topics like the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and the anti-rightist campaigns of the 1950s are all off-limits in Confucius Institute classrooms, critics have said.
Retired Shandong University lecturer Sun Wenguang said the teachers and the study materials at Confucius Institutes are all supplied by the Chinese government.
"They have been designed specially as part of a unified entity by mainland China," Sun said. "The teachers are all posted overseas by the government, and they use this model to propagate communist ideology."
"In China, a lot of educational institutions are setting up research institutes for the study of Xi Jinping Thought right now, so who's to say that we won't be seeing such institutions pop up in Hong Kong or Macau in the future?" he said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.