Macau opens largest ever corruption trial

Hong Kong (Reuters) – The biggest public corruption trial in Macau’s history opens on Monday, putting the spotlight on the criminality feeding off the gambling mecca’s rapid growth, and fanning hopes for a new era of improved governance.

Macau’s former secretary for transport and public works, Ao Man-long, faces 76 counts of corruption including alleged bribe-taking, money laundering and abuse of power.

Ao, considered a political ally of Macau’s leader Edmund Ho, is the most senior Macau official to be tried since the former Portuguese enclave returned to Chinese rule in 1999.

Anti-graft officers say they have unravelled evidence of Ao acquiring a personal fortune of around USD 100 million (47.9 million pounds), more than 57 times his income over seven years as a top policy secretary.

„Everybody has great expectations for this trial,“ said Macau legislator Jose Coutinho.

The official’s arrest sent shockwaves through Macau’s political establishment given his seniority and role in approving land sales to property developers vying for a lucrative slice of real estate in the land-starved city.

„The temptations are vast, my intelligence is that after the arrest of Ao … which in Chinese terms kills the chicken in front of the monkey, it sort of paralyzed everybody for a bit,“ said Steve Vickers, a leading security expert with International Risk, who has examined Macau’s criminal underbelly for years.

In recent years, Macau has flung open its doors to Las Vegas gaming giants including a Wynn resort and the USD 2.4 billion Venetian Macau, turning it into the world’s largest gaming hub.

But the once sleepy enclave’s image has been tainted by corruption including local bank Banco Delta Asia being identified by the U.S. as laundering money for North Korea.

The trial also comes at a time of rising social tensions despite Macau’s soaring economy, with labour protests decrying a growing wealth gap, flawed governance and rising corruption.

„There is a strong pressure from the community for administrative reforms, to really change the culture of the government … the so-called „ransacking culture“ which is prevalent,“ said Macau-based political commentator Larry So.

Macau’s opaque land zoning system in particular has been widely criticized, with regular cases of developers being given land cheaply and arbitrarily, often without open bidding.

„In the end, corners get cut clipped or trimmed to move the show along … The reality is that through poor planning and administration in Macau it’s very difficult to adhere to the law in all aspects and get the job done,“ Vickers added.

Analysts say Ao’s case also reflects Beijing’s growing desire to crack down on Macau’s problems — with anti-graft officials from Beijing and Hong Kong having played a key role in sourcing evidence to bring Ao to trial.

Ao’s trial at Macau’s Court of Final Appeal is expected to involve more than 90 witnesses and last over a month.