Meet Macau’s new chief executive Ho Iat-seng: a media-shy Beijing loyalist with deep mainland ties

Raquel Carvalho

Macau’s newly-elected chief executive Ho Iat-seng was former president of the legislature, but the well-connected businessman has shied away from the limelight, with the public not hearing much about his personal life.

As social affairs commentator Leung Kai-yin puts it: “People in Macau are aware that he belongs to a famous family, but many won’t know more than that.”

Despite his low profile, Ho’s name had been floated numerous times in the city’s social circles over the past few years as a potential candidate for chief executive.

He was chosen as the new leader of one of the world’s wealthiest cities by a 400-member electoral college about five months after he first announced he would run for the top job.

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Described by former colleagues and observers as “capable” and “loyal to Beijing”, Ho is set to serve a five-year term leading a city that faces multiple challenges – from diversifying its economy, which has been heavily reliant on the gambling industry, to addressing pressing livelihood issues.

Sonny Lo Shiu-Hing, political commentator and observer of the politics of Hong Kong and Macau, said Ho’s leadership is expected to be different from that of his predecessor, Fernando Chui Sai-on, who has been in power for about a decade.

“I expect him to be more proactive and forward-looking … the population is concerned about a number of livelihood issues, such as housing and transport,” Lo said. “Ho Iat-seng needs to be more innovative and determined.”

The scholar noted that Ho will be governing in a more challenging environment than Chui did, with the ongoing US-China trade war and the economic slowdown in Hong Kong – which has been hit by 11 consecutive weeks of anti-government protests.

Casinos and hotels stand illuminated at night on the Cotai strip in Macau. Photo: Bloomberg

“The casino industry may face a retraction, so it’s very important to bet on the diversification of the economy,” Lo said, referring to a demand that has been highlighted by Beijing in recent years.

He added that Macau is likely to face more competition in future from the Greater Bay Area, which is a central government scheme to connect Hong Kong, Macau and nine neighbouring cities in Guangdong province into an economic powerhouse.

“Youth policies will be important, like creating more job opportunities and improving the education system,” Lo said. “Macau needs to change the dependency mentality towards China and people need tools to become more competitive.”

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Ho’s government will also decide what will happen to the city’s six casino operators as their licences begin to expire in the coming few years.

“It’s one of the biggest and most complex issues the chief executive will have to deal with, because there are many stakeholders involved,” said Glenn McCartney, associate dean of the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Macau. “He will have to determine what sort of landscape he wants. But, perhaps most importantly, he will have to guarantee that this re-tendering process won’t bring any instability.”

Ho is a choice that pleases Macau’s most powerful families as well as Beijing.

Leung Kai-yin, social affairs commentator

Ho’s name had cropped up as a potential candidate before the previous elections for chief executive in 2009, but the 62-year-old only revealed his intention to run in April this year.

Much like the city’s previous leaders, he hails from a prominent family with wide industrial and business ties. His late father, Ho Tin, was a well-regarded industrialist who originally came from Zhejiang province and set up a company in Macau in 1956.

Ho later became the managing director of his family’s company, Ho Tin Industries, which manufactures a number of products, including household and electronic appliances.

Despite having been born in Macau, Ho’s connection to the mainland was not lost on him.

He studied electronic engineering and economics at Zhejiang University and was a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Zhejiang province for about two decades. Ho also served as a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

In Macau, Ho was a member of the Executive Council, which advises the city’s leader, as well as being a lawmaker and both vice-president and then president of the legislative assembly.

Lawyer Vong Hin-fai, who served in the legislature while Ho was its president, described him as “a capable, responsible and intelligent man”.

“I have a lot of respect for him and I think he has all the skills to do a good job,” Vong said.

Visitors take a selfie in front of a replica of the Eiffel Tower in Macau. Photo: Reuters

Some have noted Ho’s lack of experience in the administrative and public services, as his professional background has mostly been focused on business and legislative works.

But Larry So Man-yum, a Macau-based political commentator, previously told the Post this “can be positive for the community” because “businesspeople tend to look more at the results and less at the process”.

Most agree that Ho’s family background and ties to Beijing made him the top choice for the job.

“Ho is a choice that pleases Macau’s most powerful families as well as Beijing … these are critical aspects,” Leung, the social affairs commentator, said. “Macau is a small place, so personal connections are important. But you definitely also need to have the trust of Beijing.”

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