Geoffrey GUNN

A view of the harbor in Macao, China (formerly a Portuguese colony). PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

On 20 December 1999 the former Portuguese-administered territory of Macao (Aomen) reverted to Chinese rule. After Hong Kong, Macao became the second Special Administrative Region of China governed by a Basic Law or mini-constitution. The Macao Basic Law underwrites a high degree of autonomy but differs with its Hong Kong counterpart on details especially relating to local history and culture.

Macao (Aomen), under Portuguese domination from 1557 until its return to Chinese sovereignty on 20 December 1999, is, like Hong Kong, a special administrative region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As such, the Macao SAR is a legal entity underwritten by the Macao Basic Law or mini-constitution, established in accordance with the joint declaration entered into between Portugal and China on 13 April 1987 and adopted by the Eighth National People’s Congress of the PRC in 1993.

Importantly, Chapter 1 (5) of the Basic Law states that the “previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years” (Basic Law). Although maintaining a high degree of autonomy, the Macao SAR is short of being an independent jurisdiction, especially because Beijing retains control over foreign affairs and defense. Even so, Macao is party to a range of international conventions, organizations, and agreements under the “Macao, China” name with the concurrence of the central government.

Under the Basic Law Macao retains its Portuguese legal system and retains Portuguese as an official language alongside Chinese. The Macao SAR reserves independent judicial power with the right to final adjudication. Freedom of speech, habeas corpus (a writ inquiring into the legality of the restraint of a person who is imprisoned), freedom of conscience, and religious freedom are all upheld. The Basic Law underwrites the interests of people of Portuguese descent, a reference to the Macanese or Eurasian component of Macao society.

Certain economic practices in Macao are also secured, namely the maintenance of the pataca currency, along with free port status. Macao’s casino industry, the major prop of the local economy, is not specifically mentioned in the Basic Law, but Beijing has sanctioned the industry in separate discussions.

Although the presence of the People’s Liberation Army in Macao was not expected to be required, the presence was conceded by Portugal after an outburst of triad-based (Chinese underworld) violent crime, which—mysteriously—abated after the handover.

The Basic Law provides for a Legislative Council term of four years with powers to introduce bills and pass legislation. Currently the council has twelve elected members, ten indirectly elected members, and seven appointed members. The method for forming the council can be changed with support from a two-thirds majority with the consent of the chief executive. In turn, the central government reserves the right to appoint or remove the chief executive, currently Edmund Ho Hau-Wah serving out his second five-year term.

Although the Basic Law is silent on the question of full democracy, it remains to be seen whether civil society support for a fully elected legislature will gain momentum as in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, Macao residents have actively canvassed for good governance, especially as the casino-driven economic economy has created income disparities. High-level corruption in Macao has also incurred the displeasure of the central government.

Further Reading

Basic Law of the Macao Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, Legal Affairs Bureau, Macao. (n.d.).

Gunn, G. C. (1999). A few international ambitions. China Perspectives 26, 43–49.

Yee, Herbert. S. (2001). Macau in transition: From colony to autonomous region. New York: Palgrave.

Source: Gunn, Geoffrey. (2009). Macao Special Administrative Region. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1363–1365. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Evidence of Portuguese culture and style is still visible in many areas of Macao. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Treaty Temple, Macao, China. The historic Portuguese-Chinese treaty was signed on this stone table. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN

Macao Special Administrative Region (Àomén Tèbiéxíngzhèngq? ???????)|Àomén Tèbiéxíngzhèngq? ??????? (Macao Special Administrative Region)

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