Exploring Chinese History
East Asian Region
- Macau -

Macau or Macao (Chinese Aomen), territory of China, once administered by Portugal, on the southeastern coast of China, west of Hong Kong. Portuguese traders first traveled to the South China coast in the early 1500s, and in 1556 they established a settlement at Macau. The government of China did not formally recognize Portuguese control of Macau until 1887. Macau is scheduled to return to Chinese administration in December 1999, when it will become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China with a status similar to that of Hong Kong after its transfer from British to Chinese rule in 1997. As an SAR of China, a Communist country, Macau will maintain its capitalist economic system for 50 years after 1999, an arrangement China refers to as "one country, two systems."

Macau is located west of the mouth of the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) estuary and borders China's Guangdong Province to the north. It is about 60 km (about 40 mi) southwest of Hong Kong and about 110 km (about 70 mi) south of the city of Guangzhou. The city of Macau is the territory's largest settlement.

Macau covers a total land area of 17.4 sq km (6.7 sq mi). It consists of the narrow peninsula of Macau (6.5 sq km/2.5 sq mi) and the islands of Taipa (3.8 sq km/1.5 sq mi) and Coloane (7.1 sq km/2.7 sq mi). Macau's total area is growing as extensive land reclamation projects add new area to the islands and peninsula. This effort is expected to continue because Macau has a scarcity of level land suitable for development. Bridges and a causeway, or raised highway, link the islands to the peninsula. At the north end of the peninsula, where Macau borders Guangdong Province, the land forms a narrow isthmus.

Macau's terrain consists of low hills, with no elevation greater than 200 m (650 ft). On the western side of the peninsula, one of the main channels of the Xi He (West River) empties into the South China Sea. Macau has hot, humid summers; cool, dry autumns; and comparatively mild and dry winters with no frost. January temperatures average 16° C (61° F), while temperatures in July average 26° C (79° F). Annual precipitation averages about 2000 mm (about 80 in), with most rainfall occurring during the summer months. Typhoons in summer and early autumn sometimes produce heavy rainfall and flooding that can cause serious damage to crops and other property.

The population of Macau in 1991 was 355,693. By 1995 the population increased to an estimated 424,430, yielding a population density of 24,379 persons per sq km (63,159 per sq mi), among the highest in the world. Much of Macau's recent and rapid population growth is a result of increased Chinese migration, largely from Guangdong Province. The peninsula is extremely densely crowded. The Taipa and Coloane Islands contain some undeveloped areas, but these rapidly are becoming urbanized.

Most people in Macau are ethnic Chinese and either came from, or their ancestors came from, Guangdong Province. Other groups living in the territory include immigrants from Hong Kong, and Macanese people, who are of mixed Portuguese and Chinese ancestry.

Macau has two official languages: Cantonese, the regional Chinese language and the dominant language spoken by Macau residents, and Portuguese. Macanese have both Cantonese and Portuguese language skills. Many locals also speak Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese) and English. Most Chinese people in Macau are Buddhists, and the territory contains several important Buddhist temples. Roman Catholicism, the religion of about 6 percent of the population, is the dominant Christian faith.

Education levels in Macau are low. Only about one-quarter of the population has a secondary-level education, and less than 5 percent has a college education. About 10 percent of the people are illiterate. Macau officially has one of the highest standards of living in Asia, estimated at $15,000 per capita in 1996. However, this wealth is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small, educated, and dominant elite. The territory has a much larger number of poor residents who have problems finding adequate housing and jobs. Observers believe these difficulties are likely to increase if rural Chinese people continue to migrate from neighboring Guangdong Province, adding to the territory's already high population density.

Because China had already played a major role in the economy of Macau, largely through investment, the scheduled transfer to Chinese rule was not expected to significantly alter the economy as a whole. Macau's economy is largely dependent on profits from gambling and tourism. In the mid-1990s approximately 6 million tourists visited Macau annually, many for the gambling opportunities. Most tourists came from nearby Hong Kong, but large numbers also came from Japan, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Industry has long been important to the territory's economy. Although employment in industrial sectors has declined in recent years, the value of manufactured goods has continued to increase modestly. Macau's chief manufactured products include textiles and clothing, food, toys, and fireworks. Consumer goods account for three-quarters of Macau's exports. The United States is the largest export market, followed by the countries of the European Union (EU). Hong Kong and China are Macau's largest suppliers of imports, which include food, raw materials, and fuels. In the mid-1990s imports exceeded exports, but the balance of trade was more than offset by the enormous profits earned from gambling and tourism.

Macau's unit of currency is the pataca (7.741 patacas equal U.S.$1; fixed at this value since 1983). Many establishments accept Hong Kong currency as well as patacas. Macau has a total of about 20 local and foreign banks. The Monetary and Foreign Exchange Authority issues the territory's currency while the Banco Nacional Ultramarino functions as the territory's central bank.

Macau has an excellent transportation network that has improved rapidly, especially in links with China, as the return to Chinese rule has approached. The territory's principal connections traditionally were shipping routes oriented mainly toward Hong Kong. Ships now serve the territory from Hong Kong, China, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. Passenger service has consisted mostly of high-speed hydrofoil and catamaran service to Hong Kong, less than one hour away; recently, however, service has been extended to other Chinese ports in the Zhu Jiang Delta. Bus service to towns and cities in the Zhu Jiang Delta has also expanded. The Macau International Airport, which opened in 1995, provides service to Hong Kong and China.

Macau has a wide range of modern telecommunications and media services, although most television broadcasts originate in Hong Kong. In 1984 a public Cantonese Chinese and Portuguese television station began broadcasting in Macau. One public radio station and one private station broadcast in both Portuguese and Cantonese. In the mid-1990s Macau had 11 daily newspapers, of which 4 were published in Portuguese and 7 were published in Chinese.

In the mid-1970s a political revolution brought democracy to Portugal, Macau's colonial ruler. The new Portuguese government negotiated independence for its overseas territories in Africa, and reached an agreement with China on the administration of Macau. Under the 1974 agreement, the status of Macau changed from an overseas territory of Portugal to a Chinese territory under Portuguese administration. In 1976 Portugal passed The Macau Organic Law, which established Macau's legislative assembly and gave the territory administrative, economic, and financial autonomy, although it remained subject to Portuguese constitutional law.

The Portuguese governor, appointed by the president of Portugal, is Macau's executive head. Legislative power is vested in the 23-member Legislative Assembly. Eight members of the assembly are elected directly, seven members are appointed by the governor, and seven members are elected indirectly through specially designated cultural, economic, and religious groups. Legislative members serve four-year terms. Despite the creation of the Legislative Assembly, a great deal of power remains in the governor's hands, and thus a significant amount of policy making and direct decision making is accomplished through the executive branch. There is also an elected city council in Macau, that, together with the Legislative Assembly, provides a mechanism for representing the popular viewpoint.

The most recent elections and appointments to the Legislative Assembly were held in 1996. The three main political groupings in the 1996 elections were a pro-China group, a pro-business group, and a liberal democratic group. Of the eight directly elected members, four were from the pro-business group, three were from the pro-China group, and one was from the liberal democratic group. Unlike Hong Kong's elected legislature, China is not expected to immediately disband Macau's legislature in 1999. As a result, the legislative members will have an opportunity to help shape government policy and activities after Macau becomes a Special Administrative Region of China.

Macau, a part of Chinese territory for centuries, first developed as a major settlement in the 16th century, when the Portuguese established a trading post on the site. Portuguese colonialism in Macau had two main objectives: to develop economic and trade links with China and other Asian states, including Japan, and to spread Roman Catholicism, mainly through the efforts of Jesuit priests. However, because of the great size and power of the Asian states, the Portuguese had only limited success with both of these objectives. China permitted only limited economic access, and attempts to convert people to Catholicism were halted at times. Moreover, the Portuguese were competing with more aggressive European powers, such as Britain, and this limited Portugal's scope and success internationally.

Colonial activity and control in Macau reached its height in the early 17th century, but stagnated thereafter. In dealing with China, Portugal resorted to negotiation rather than military confrontation, in contrast to Britain, which obtained trading privileges in China through force in the Opium Wars (1839-1843, 1856-1860). Britain also forced China to cede control of the territory of Hong Kong, which eventually eclipsed Macau as the region's most important port. In 1974 a military coup in Portugal brought to power a socialist government, which was sympathetic to independence movements in the country's overseas territories. Although there was no strong movement for independence in Macau, Portugal approached China about Macau's future. In 1987 Portugal and China reached an agreement by which Macau would be returned to China in 1999.

In 1993 China passed a Basic Law for Macau that provided for the operation of Macau as a Special Administrative Region of China after the transfer to Chinese rule in 1999. The law, which was approved by Portugal, allows Macau to maintain a capitalist economy and a high degree of autonomy for a period of 50 years after 1999. The Basic Law also provides for a judicial system that maintains the rule of law as a principle for operating a civil society and market economy. The scheduled transfer and return of Macau to China brought to an end nearly 500 years of European colonial and territorial involvement and control in Asia.

Contributed By:
Clifton W. Pannell

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