A place with so much money seemingly any problem could be solved. 
A place where the government pays you. 
A place where ‘money makes the world go round’ is not just a saying, but a reality.
Welcome to Macau.

The casino mecca of the world is not just the glitter the Special Administrative Region (SAR) on the Southern coast of China has been going for. Indeed, it has the wealth to match the luxury and pomp of its richest patrons. With the second highest GDP per capita in the world, the former Portuguese province hosts enormous wealth in its 118 square kilometres. 

Macau’s rise as the harlot of moral ambiguity and big bets came rapidly. In the 1990s, the importance of gaming to the economy of Macau was a mere 30 per cent of its GDP; it now makes up 87.7 per cent of the SAR’s GDP. The very function of the government itself has come to rely on the industry, with over 80 per cent of tax revenue coming from the sector (Gu et al. 2017). 

Macau (2021). Photo by Jimmy on Unsplash

The transient cash flow of a poker chip and the allure of a slot machine embody the neoliberal fetish with consumerism and acquisition. The casinos beckon people to forget their woes and suspend time and the worry of tomorrow; the industry relies on the idea of future wealth and faith in fast money being a worthwhile pursuit. Indeed, Natasha Schüll’s research has found that not only has the quest to drive up addiction in casinos, despite unbeatable algorithms, been successful, but it has managed to create psychological states of temporality and loss of time. Known as the ‘Machine Zone,’ the distinction between a gambler and a machine collapses as people pursue the state of body and self to disappear (Zuboff 2019). The very essence of Macau’s economy is speculation— big bets, buildings, and an ethos of consumerist culture. 

What does it mean for the success of a society to hinge on an industry where exploitation and transience are intrinsic to the experience and profit margins?

Few are fully comfortable with the moral ambiguity of Macau’s success, least of all government authorities in mainland China. For leadership in mainland China, the moral ambiguity of wealth gained from exploiting people’s earnings is accepted as something not to be discussed— officially unacknowledged yet condoned (Lo 2009). The moral ambiguity provokes further unease given the blurring of political and business elite interests— headlines with the latest corruption charges for officials within Macau range from a billionaire who tried to bribe the United Nations to corruption of legal professionals

With corruption seemingly embedded within the system of governance itself, the inequality and social ails Macau faces seem inevitable. Gaps in relative income between elites and ordinary citizens, migrant labour exploitation and traffic congestion are just a few issues the city faces, disrupting social stability (Meneses 2020). The skyrocketing housing market tops the list. Tourism has inflated housing costs coupled with the speculative trade of houses reminiscent of the speculation and betting of the casino industry itself (Gu et al. 2017). The boom of the casino industry has led to competition for space along with increases in the value of land, which makes housing difficult to afford— the minimum subsistence index unable to cope with the expenditure of housing or basic necessities for most people. 

Macau (2021). Photo by Renato Marques on Unsplash

With the government pockets reliant on the success of the casino business, however, it seems there is no alternative but to continue propping up the industry, and making any changes to this system is not forthcoming. Just in January, authorities claimed they would crack down on runaway casinos, of which vertical gains spur increasing levels of inequality. Still, the outcome of this crackdown was a lot less stringent than the draft bill. 

The issue at hand is that the system itself does not incentivise social welfare. The Cotai Strip project exemplifies this. The project was originally to build a new city in 1992 in an inter-island reclamation project for a population of over 150,000 residents. This would have given space and housing for residents squeezed on the small island. Instead, this project transformed into one aimed at building casinos in the wake of concerns about a decline in industry growth when the gaming monopoly ended in 2002 (Tang and Sheng 2009). Concerns for the diminishment of the gaming industry take precedence.

The government response to the Covid pandemic also reflects this ethos. An industry reliant on tourism, Macau was hard hit. What is the solution by the government for the crunch on laid-off workers during the Covid pandemic? More ‘free money’ in the form of a Wealth Redistribution Scheme. However, the wealth redistribution, an ongoing scheme since 2008, fails to address real inequalities, and the wealthy continue to gain at the expense of the lower tiers. Rest assured, the business tycoons were not suffering too much during this crunch, as Galaxy announced its renovation budget remains the same despite weathering the pandemic. 

How, despite the vast social inequities, is this ethos sustained? 

To understand Macau, one has to understand its history. Prior to the handover in 1999, the bureaucratic system was rife with clientelism and corruption. The relationship with the postcolonial regime in Macau is unique in the fusion of the Portuguese and Chinese hybrid rule (Chun 2019). A long history of collusion between Chinese and Portuguese government officials and business elites, alongside a stratified society characteristic of many colonial empires, was inherited in a smooth transition in 1999 (ibid). The inherited structure of a ‘rentier economy’ (an economic order oriented around income-generating assets where incomes are dominated by rent) from the 1850s in the form of opium farming transitioned to that of casinos under Chinese rule. 

The systems in place— and all the inequality reproduced by unequal power relationships and bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption of those in power— were never changed after the switch occurred. Unequal power hierarchies set in motion from the colonial experience coupled with a historically weak civil society further perpetuate the issue. Instead of reforming the system, the first governor, in the wake of the handover, concentrated on cultivating economic growth in the form of casinos— and this pursuit never stopped. Instead, the growth of the economy has become a stand-in solution for social welfare. 

It is not just the government which has come to see the casino industry and consumerist lifestyle as an aspiration to achieve and recreate, but the society as a whole. Working in the gaming industry is one of the few job choices for citizens; supporting the industry means supporting one’s livelihood. When 60 per cent of gaming sector workers were furloughed without pay during the pandemic, a survey by the Macau Gaming Enterprise Association found that only 8 per cent of the furloughed workers were even thinking of moving to another job. So, there is a lack of viable alternatives. 

Macau (2022). Photo by Yufei Qi on Unsplash

However, there is also a deeper culture of seeing money as an acceptable equivalent to resolving social issues. Researchers baffle themselves during interviews with local residents. Despite the social woes the casino industry provokes and the band-aid solution of the Wealth Redistribution Scheme as the primary means the government resolves this conflict, residents are satisfied overall by the government’s response (Lo 2009, Meneses 2020). 

It seems that the duplicity in the gambling ethos is not just a priority pushed by the government anymore. It has come to be produced and reproduced in Macau’s society itself. The government is dependent on the gaming industry, and people have become reliant on the industry for jobs, the lifestyle they aspire to, and the future they can imagine. It seems that betting on the future has become the social contract between citizens and leaders in Macau. The temporality of the Wealth Distribution Scheme— a seemingly band-aid solution— is not merely a band-aid but the solution itself. Perhaps the only acceptable solution to those living in a society where winning big is the vernacular of success. 


Chun, A. (2019) (Post)Colonial governance in Hong Kong and Macau: A tale of two cities and regimes, Postcolonial Studies, 22(4): 413-427.

Gu, X., Li, G., Chang, X. and Guo, H. (2017). Casino tourism, economic inequality and housing bubbles. Tourism Management 62: 253-263.

Lo, S. (2009) Casino capitalism and its impact on the politico-administrative state in Macau. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 38(1): 19-47.

Meneses, J.P. (2020) Social inequality. Macau Business Special Report. 27 January. Available at: https://www.macaubusiness.com/social-inequality/

Tang, U.W. and Sheng, N. (2009) City profile: Macao. Cities 26(4): 220-231.

Zuboff, S. (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. London: Profile Books.

About the author

Vanessa Miller recently completed her MSc in China in Comparative Perspective from the London School of Economics. With a Bachelors in Race and Ethnic Studies and Sociology/Anthropology, Vanessa’s passion is the study of human behavior and culture. With past legislative experience, Vanessa’s interests lie in foreign affairs and international relations. She believes that a curious mind and open heart promote greater understanding of the world as a whole.