Today’s boom times in China are interesting in their own right, as economic booms always are. By chance and by design, I have lived in the middle of several of them: the Texas oil boom of the mid-1970s, Japan’s all-around boom of the late ’80s, and the Seattle and Bay Area Internet bubble of the late ’90s. Inside the boom zone, people don’t spend much time thinking about how the good times began, or asking how long the boom can last. Everyone, everywhere, takes their own prosperity as a sign of cleverness, wise planning, and hard work.
From outside, the questions concern the boom’s effects—on culture, on values, on old establishments and traditions. Such questions about China’s boom are unusually compelling, simply because of the country’s scale. What will its growth mean for the global environment? For jobs and prices outside of China? For the military balance of power and the ideological contest of ideas?
Right now the very most booming part of generally booming China raises questions like these in a peculiar and intriguing form. This part is the tiny peninsula of Macau—as it spells its name, versus Macao in American usage. Geographically, it is one-sixth the size of the District of Columbia, and it has a population of half a million. It officially became Chinese territory only in 1999, after centuries of colonial control by Portugal. Like its neighbor Hong Kong, which was transferred from British to Chinese control in 1997, Macau is a “special administrative region” of China, meaning it is supposed to run by its own laws and customs for at least 50 years after the handover.
Slideshow: "The Many Faces of Macau"
James Fallows narrates photos from China's glitzy, seedy, over-the-top gambling mecca.
While China’s overall economy has grown about 10 percent per year since the 1980s, Macau’s has recently been growing by 20. While Shanghai, Beijing, and other big cities are dotted with construction cranes, Macau appears to be made of them. Early this year, on a tour of Macau’s Cotai Strip, where a version of the Las Vegas Strip is being created, I counted more than 200 working cranes before I lost track. While the rest of China is struggling to contain the tensions between the very rich and the very poor, via what the central government calls its “harmonious society” policy, Macau is rushing to make itself more attractive to the very rich—and to anyone else who would like to visit the only part of Chinese territory where casino gambling is legal. (State-run lotteries are the only legal gambling outlet on the mainland.)