MACAU (Reuters) - By night, Ieong Man Teng was dealing baccarat to gamblers at the Wynn Macau casino. By day, he was mobilizing thousands of fellow dealers to protest on the street for better working conditions and higher pay.
That made him one of the people on Beijing's watch list earlier this year in Macau, the world's biggest gambling hub.
Ieong, 29, said associates of prominent businessmen in Macau and a Macau politician who sits on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) warned him in face-to-face meetings, including one at a local cafe, to tone down his activities. He did not name the politician.
"They said they were passing on a message from people up there (Beijing). I consider these to be threats," Ieong said.
A spokesman for the CPPCC, a largely ceremonial but high profile advisory body to China's parliament, told Reuters he did "not know anything about this". He did not elaborate.
Ieong's experience is part of a broader squeeze in Macau, where Beijing is tightening its grip after a series of grassroots protest actions in the former Portuguese colony. Unnerved by pro-democracy protests roiling neighboring Hong Kong, China has moved firmly in Macau to stifle any parallel challenge to the central government's authority.
President Xi Jinping visits Macau on Dec. 19-20 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of its handover to the mainland with the territory at a crossroads.
Macau's gambling take, which makes up 80 percent of its revenues, has suffered the biggest decline since the industry was liberalized in 2001. This is partly because Xi's sweeping crackdown on corruption has scared off high-rollers, including corrupt officials.
Xi is also helping inaugurate a second five-year term for Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui, who was re-elected by a pro-Beijing panel in August amid unprecedented political protests.
Au Kam San, a pro-democracy Macau lawmaker, said Beijing still viewed Macau as more controllable than Hong Kong. But the protests from July to October by Ieong’s gambling union, in a city where casinos raked in $45 billion last year, troubled Beijing.
"The gambling union is much more important and it has a higher risk for Beijing because it's mobilizing potential is much stronger," Au said. "It's seen as a threat to Beijing."
The fact that gaming is so closely connected with the mainland means that Beijing cannot just look at economic growth and tax revenue "when looking at Macau's overall well-being," Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee said in a speech in Macau on Dec. 3. "It must think from the perspective of China's economic and social stability and development."
Beijing's Liaison Office in Macau and the Macau government did not respond to Reuters' questions sent by fax and email.
Like Hong Kong, Macau is ruled under the one country, two systems model that affords its residents wide-ranging personal freedoms that don't exist on the mainland. Critics say these have been eroding under pressure from China.
Last month, the University of Saint Joseph issued a document, titled "USJ policy on political activities," that places limits on political discussion at the Catholic institution. When asked to provide a copy of the guidelines, the university's Pro-Rector for Academic Affairs and Development Vincent Yang told Reuters they were for internal use only and declined to give more details.
The guidelines were issued after a professor at the University, Eric Sautede, was dismissed in June after writing a column in a local newspaper extolling a candlelight vigil in Macau commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square student-led protests.
Peter Stilwell, the rector of Saint Joseph's, said Sautede was sacked for violating the primary principle of the Church, "which is of non-intervention in local political debate".
Bill Chou Kwok-Ping, a professor at the University of Macau and prominent civil rights activist, was let go in August for similar reasons. The University said it chose not to renew Chou's contract because he violated professional conduct regulations by not remaining politically neutral.
Macau's Tertiary Education Services Office is discussing guidelines that would assess universities and tertiary institutions for various issues, including funding, on the basis of whether they adhered to the principle of "love China, love Macau", according to a person who attended the meeting.
The tertiary office did not respond to Reuters' questions sent by email.
Situated at the mouth of China's Pearl River delta, Macau has traditionally been sympathetic to Beijing, with around half of its 600,000 population having emigrated from the mainland over the past three decades. As a result, there has been little grassroots protest in the city since China resumed control in 1999.
That changed in May. A record 20,000 people took to the streets to protest poor public services and a bill that provided lavish perks for senior civil servants.
Then, in August, Macau activists organized an unofficial referendum asking residents whether they trusted their chief executive - as the territory's head of government is called - and if full universal suffrage should be introduced. At the same time in Hong Kong, tensions were rising over a plan by activists, also demanding full democracy, to paralyze the central business district.
The results of the Macau referendum showed that 89 percent of the nearly 9,000 people who took part didn't trust Chui. The sole candidate for chief executive in the August election, he was chosen by a panel of 400 largely pro-China loyalists. Data released on the poll's online site also showed that 95 percent of the participants said they were in favor of allowing all registered voters to cast ballots for a chief executive.
Macau authorities moved quickly to disrupt the referendum, shutting polling booths. They also arrested five people for breaching privacy laws because the ballot asked for telephone and ID card numbers to prevent fraudulent voting.
Jason Chao, one of those detained, told Reuters he fled Macau for a few days at the end of the referendum to dispose of all the data, defying orders from police to hand over the information. Chao, a computer software developer and leading member of the New Macau Association, said he refused to let police officers search his apartment.
"There's a trend for them to use the criminal justice system as justification for getting information from you, for searching your house," Chao said in an interview in Macau, referring to the local authorities and the Chinese government. "They're doing it to essentially deter us from escalating the movement."
Ahead of Xi's visit, Chao has met with men he described as plain clothes policemen and had informal meetings with representatives from Beijing, who described themselves as researchers but were not affiliated with any institution, he said.
Macau police declined to comment on questions sent by email.
Chao said he was told his group's annual pro-democracy protest held on the anniversary of Macau's handover could go ahead as long as it didn't target President Xi.
"They invited me to lunch and didn't put it in a straight-forward manner," he said. "They diplomatically said that if you decide to do your annual demonstration as normal, it will be fine as long as you don't do other things targeting Xi Jinping."
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Peter Hirschberg and Clarence Fernandez