Getting older in Macao – Local population is aging, but young-immigrant numbers are increasing

22 February 2013

People are getting older in Macao. The Statistics and Census Service (DSEC) registered 557,400 people living in Macao by the end of 2011, of which the majority (80.8 percent) were aged between 15 and 64 years old. The aging ratio has been increasing over the past three years, having grown from 56.2 in 2009 to 62 percent in 2011.

Based on the 2007–2031 forecast, from the 2011 census, the chief of the Department of Demographic, Social and Employment Statistics, Mark Mak, says that the population will continue to age, with the percentage of elderly people  (over 65 years old) set to increase from seven percent (2006) to 19 percent (2031). By 2031, the elderly population will be larger than that of the younger generation, due to the decrease of the birth rate and the increase of life expectancy.

The latest 2011–2036 forecast, from the 2011 census, goes even further, predicting that by 2036 the elderly population will increase to 20.7 percent. The census reveals a figure of 65,900 children up to 14 years old for 2011, which accounts for 11.9 percent of the population – 9.7 percent less than in 2001.

The reason behind it is related to significant immigration numbers, particularly in the 1980s, from the Mainland to Macao. Mr Mak says that in 1979 and 1980 the government facilitated the immigration procedure, giving immigrants legal status in the territory. Such a flow of people from the Mainland resulted from the start of the opening-up policy of the leader of the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping. It also led to less control over migration.

The 2007–2031 projections made by DSEC also reveal that by 2031 there will be 829,000 people living in Macao. The latest forecast, however, has adjusted the predictions, claiming that the number will not rise higher than 759,900. Either way, Mr Mak believes any such increases might pose a problem: “If you want to have the capacity for such a huge amount of people, you need to do a lot of planning, in terms of housing, benefits and welfare.”

The 2011 census does show that from 2010 to 2011 there were over 16,800 people living in Macao. By June 2012, the local population was 568,700 (includes residents and non-residents), which means 11,300 more than by the end of last year.

Mr Mak highlights that the increase is mostly due to the influx of people, especially from Mainland China. It cannot be accounted for by an increase in births, as the data on the natural increase in births records that there were 5852 births in 2011, which is only 14.4 percent more than the previous year. “Macao is special, it is an immigrant city: a main component of the population is made up of incoming immigrants,” he says.

Last year alone, there was an influx of 15,000 migrants, including non-resident workers and immigrants who were authorised to reside here. The total number of non-resident workers at the end of the second quarter was 102,557, while by the end of 2011 there were 94,028 – already 18,215 more than in 2010.

According to Mr Mak, after the liberalisation of casinos in 2002, workers started to come to Macao from Europe and the USA, in addition to the regular influx from Mainland China.

The refugees from World War Two

Sociology professor at the University of Macau, Zhidong Hao, believes that the most significant time in recent history to contribute to the current composition of Macao society was World War Two, when many Chinese people sought refuge in Macao. Even though some of them did eventually leave the territory, Mr Hao believes that they managed to change Macao to a certain extent in terms of culture. And, of course, some of them did stay on in Macao for good. “There were a lot of creative people, who performed plays in Macao, some of them revolutionary plays,” he says.

It was a “glorious” period for Macao history, in which the Chinese and Portuguese cultures intertwined, resulting in an interesting fusion. In a way, such people did “develop a culture of their own”, regardless of the difficult period. “At least temporarily it did change the society.”
A few years later, in the 1960s, Chinese citizens living in Indonesia, in Thailand and in Burma who were being persecuted by the established regimes of those countries, came to Macao and settled here. Influencing social organisations and business networks, this group raised the issue of “the social groupings within the Chinese community”. Although the second and third generations already speak Cantonese, Mr Hao says that they have their own identity. “Politically, there is not too much of a difference between these different groups, but culturally, yes, they have different cultural roots.”

Historian Jonathan Porter, who has written books on the subject, says there was a big increase in the population during the 1970s and the 1980s, mainly due to immigration.

The main group entering Macao were illegal Mainlanders, later becoming legal, while other people from Southeast Asia also sought refuge in Macao. “The Chinese people coming in were escaping difficult economic conditions in the south of China, whilst the Vietnamese were escaping from the chaos of war. I recall watching the maritime police stopping junks in the outer harbour along the Praia Grande (in the good old days when that existed), looking for refugees. This was a common occurrence.”

The society then was quite different. “Macao was developing rapidly but was not as economically advanced as now. Gambling was still relatively under-developed, and there were many Chinese refugees who spoke Mandarin as opposed to the native Chinese Cantonese-speaking population,” he says. Furthermore, the Macanese still played an important role.

The turning point

Mr Hao considers the moment before the handover as one of the most significant points in Macao’s population history, as many Portuguese and Macanese people left the territory, afraid of what it would be like under Chinese rule. “It was another change in the population, and not necessarily a good one, as it meant the loss of the multicultural characteristics of Macao,” he adds. Furthermore, the traditional role of the Macanese as the middlemen between the Portuguese administration and the Chinese got lost after the handover. “It meant the playing down of the role of the Macanese.”

The liberalisation of the gaming industry, in 2002, was also important, bringing different types of people to the territory. Mr Hao says there was even an expansion of the staff of the University of Macau, with many teachers arriving from abroad and the creation and development of other universities.

The sociologist highlights that more recently there has been an increasing influx of Mainland Chinese due to the short distance involved, and of Western people due to the casinos. It is unclear whether these two groups communicate with each other, but Mr Hao doesn’t seem to think that they do. “There is always this kind of natural barrier, because of cultural differences. They don’t know each other that well and they don’t feel that comfortable interacting with each other, coupled with the problem of language.”

Mr Hao also believes that there is no sense of community amongst these two groups, unless there is a crisis. Even amongst the Mainlanders, people differ according to whether they come from Guangdong or from, for instance, the northern part of China. He says it is easier for the former group to mix in with the locals, although there are some local people who distrust Mainlanders because of the problems they have encountered. Nowadays, Hao concludes, there are several communities in Macau – one big non-Chinese community and one Chinese community that includes different sub-communities.

Different nationalities

By 2011, the local population (not including non-resident workers and foreign students) reached the significant mark of 485,255 people, of which the majority were Chinese (470,750).

The second biggest community was the Portuguese, with 4635 people living in Macao, while the figures released by DSEC account for 3160 Filipinos and 3337 from other Asian countries, of which the biggest group were Thai people (564). Of the 485,255 local residents, 3373 came from other countries such as the USA (695), England (650) and Australia (518).

It is difficult to make an exact prediction in immigration trends, as there are several factors to take into account. For instance, says Mak, in 2006 DSEC could not have foreseen the numbers of Westerners set to enter Macao. Nor could they have predicted that the local and central government would authorise adult children of Macao permanent residents, who were born and lived on the Mainland, to settle in the territory. “It was a new policy in 2009 – the kind of information we could not have forecast. We need to make lots of adjustments to the old projections,” he adds.

The figures that are the most difficult to predict are those accounting for the influx of people from elsewhere and the numbers for non-resident workers. “Now the figures are quite stable, and dominated by Mainlanders, as the cost of workers is cheaper and communication is good,” says Mak. Even so, the latest forecast concludes that the number of non-resident workers will increase from 69,900 (in 2011) to 83,200 (in 2036). Also, by then, the number of local residents who work in the territory but actually live in the Mainland will decrease from the current 4,300.

But predictions on a city like Macao, where everything changes so fast, are difficult to keep accurate. And, according to Mr Mak, even the predicted figure of the number of people living in Macao in 24 years’ time, will probably be much different in the event. “Part of the older population will return to Mainland China or Hong Kong upon retirement, because Macao is so expensive,” he explains. (macauhub/By Luciana Leitão)