China's President Xi Jinping began a three-day visit to Macau on Wednesday to mark the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule, heaping praise on the city's government for "fully and accurately" implementing the "one country, two systems" principle under which it is administered and for defending national security.
Xi made no mention of neighbouring Hong Kong, which has been rocked by anti-government and anti-Beijing protests since June, but his contrasting compliments for Macau were widely interpreted as disapproval of the former British colony's performance.
Hours before his arrival, six activists and at least six more journalists from Hong Kong were denied entry to Macau as the authorities placed the city under an unprecedented security lockdown.
Xi, visiting Macau for the second time since 2014, is expected to announce new policies aimed at diversifying the casino hub's economy and developing it into an international financial centre.
"The achievement and progress that Macau has made after returning to the motherland has made people feel proud," the president declared in his opening remarks upon landing at Macau's airport.
Xi said Macau, which was run by the Portuguese until December 1999, had been serious about implementing one country, two systems with its own characteristics. Under the principle, which applies to Hong Kong as well, the two cities are promised a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule.
In his four-minute speech, Xi urged Macau residents to work together and map out a "beautiful blueprint" for the city's future development.
According to the official Xinhua news agency, Xi told Macau's outgoing leader Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on that his administration had "fully and accurately" implemented its governing formula, and worked in accordance with China's constitution and the city's own Basic Law, or mini-constitution.
Xi hailed the Macau government for its achievements in many areas, including defending national security, maintaining social stability, fostering economic development, improving people's lives, and deepening co-operation with mainland China. The central government fully recognised Chui's work, the president said.
Macau passed its national security bill under Article 23 of the Basic Law without any public backlash and large-scale protests in 2009. Hong Kong's government tried to do the same in 2003, but was forced to give up when half a million people took to the streets fearing their rights and freedoms would be undermined.
Chui will be succeeded by Ho Iat-seng, the former president of the city's legislature.
Macau-based commentator Larry So Man-yum said the "characteristics" that Xi noted the city had applied in adhering to its governing formula referred to political stability.
He said it was clear from Xi's remarks, and the financial policies he was expected to unveil, that Beijing considered Macau the "good boy" deserving to be rewarded, unlike "bad boy" Hong Kong.
"His message was that the one country, two systems itself is not a failure. It's only that Hong Kong did not make it work as Beijing wanted. Macau succeeded," So said.
China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu also saw Xi's remarks as silent criticism of Hong Kong.
"Xi was implying Macau has done a better job than Hong Kong in implementing the one country, two systems principle, as it has closely followed Beijing's orders, something that Hong Kong has failed to do for some reasons," Lau said.
Macau's economy is heavily reliant on its casino industry. Last year, about 80 per cent of the government's revenue came from gaming tax.
Heightened security for Xi's visit saw six activists from opposition group the League of Social Democrats barred from boarding a ferry to Macau at a Hong Kong pier.
After purchasing Turbojet ferry tickets on Wednesday morning, they staged a protest at the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal. While trying to get past the Hong Kong immigration checkpoint, activist Raphael Wong Ho-ming said, they were told by the officers and ferry staff that they were not welcome by the Macau government.
They still managed to get past the checkpoint but once at the boarding area, a ferry staff member gave them a statement from Macau police.
The statement was addressed to the ferry company, requesting its help to bar the six from taking the ferry because intelligence had shown the group planned to visit Macau to sabotage anniversary activities. The operator would have to bear legal consequences if it did not co-operate, the statement said.
"Macau police will resolutely ban these people from entering Macau to carry out illegal activities," the statement read.
Wong said the incident "shows Macau can never truly become an international financial centre, for it does not allow peaceful protests".
Also on Wednesday, six Hong Kong journalists from RTHK, Commercial Radio, Now TV, TVB and Apple Daily were all denied entry to Macau. They were told there were strong signs they would engage in activities that would jeopardise safety and public order in Macau.
All of them, except one TVB journalist, had registered with the Macau government to cover the handover ceremonies from Wednesday to Friday.
Before the journalists were denied entry, the Macau police asked them for personal details including their addresses, parents' names, marital statuses, and purpose of visit.
Another RTHK reporter was let in on Wednesday. But that was after he was asked by police to sign a statement allowing officers to check his phone. They looked at his photo album, as well as his Facebook, Instagram and other social media accounts.
Police also inspected the journalist's WhatsApp chat history and asked whether he had installed Telegram, another messaging app that has become popular during more than six months of protests in Hong Kong.
He was allowed in after 2½ hours.
RTHK expressed deep regret over the restrictions and said it did not understand the denial of entry because the journalist had received prior approval from the Macau government to cover the ceremonies.
Commercial Radio said its journalists had always been law-abiding and serious about their work. Covering the handover anniversary would not harm Macau's public safety and order, the broadcaster said.
Now TV expressed regret and frustration as well.
On Tuesday, a Post reporter was denied entry, one day after another Now TV journalist was similarly barred.
In a statement, the Hong Kong News Executive Association said the Macau handover was a major news event and journalists had the responsibility to cover it. The association said it was unacceptable that the Macau authorities saw the rejected journalists as posing security threats.
It urged the Macau government to explain clearly the reasons why the reporters were rejected, and to put measures in place to prevent similar incidents in future.
In an open letter, the Hong Kong Journalists Association urged Macau and Beijing authorities to respect press freedom. It expressed regret over the entry restrictions and said journalists were not troublemakers.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.