MACAO — IF, as is commonly said, most citizens in the British colony of Hong Kong are unconcerned about basic freedoms and self-rule, then their counterparts in the nearby Portuguese-run territory of Macao are politically inert.
Macao had an opportunity to elect liberal candidates to two legislative seats in by-elections last year, but only 18 percent of registered voters bothered going to the polls.
As a result, the territory's Beijing-supported political machine, the Union for Promotion of Progress, won both of the contested seats with nearly 50 percent of the vote.
To a degree, Macao's small grass-roots democracy movement has itself to blame for its poor showing: Liberals in Macao are divisive and disorganized, Western diplomats say.
Yet liberal politicians confront a stubborn public apathy which thwarts efforts to build democratic institutions against mainland Communist officials who will take over in 1999.
The 450,000 residents of Macao favor more immediate, pocketbook concerns. The territory's per capita income was only $8,100 in 1990, about one-third less than that of Hong Kong.
Many Macao residents feel apathetic because of Beijing's blanket control over the territory's society and civil organizations, members of the pro-democracy movement say.
The mainland has influenced Macao's leading labor and neighborhood organizations since 1966, when Maoist fanatics helped purge rival Nationalist organizations from Taiwan.
The Macao government has reinforced public resignation over Beijing's control by helping to fund the territory's two leading civil groups. During past elections, the General Association of Workers and the General Association of Residences have posed a formidable obstacle for Beijing-backed candidates.
But now the Macao "government is cooperating with the two associations to ensure that no power threatens Beijing," says liberal lawmaker Alexandre Ho.