Special Report – 澳门 or 澳門?

A few months from now, when the results of the 2021 Census are publicly known, there will be certainty, but just now, the reader can bet on an increase in the number of Pǔtōnghuà speakers in Macau.

MB February 2021 Special Report | One city, four ‘languages’


This is what the numbers have shown us since 2001: as the speakers of Pǔtōnghuà increase, Cantonese as the main language decreases. In 15 years this number has fallen by 10 percentage points (from 87.9 per cent to 77.8 per cent).

If in 2001 there only 1.6 per cent of the population noted Pǔtōnghuà as their common language (and there were 7.5 per cent of other people who had dialects other than Cantonese, especially Hokkien), in 2016 it was already noticed that the national language had passed these other dialects.

“Macau has only limited human resources and it has to rely heavily on imported workers, especially from Mainland. Pǔtōnghuà-speaking Mainlanders are employed in virtually all sectors of the MSAR economy.” This is the portrait given by the former Professor of Politics and International Relations at the Macau Polytechnic Institute Herbert S. Yee, who shares his own experience. “In the public-funded Macau Polytechnic Institute, for instance, most meetings are conducted in Pǔtōnghuà. The president and vice-president of the Institute both come from the Mainland, do not speak Cantonese well. Four of the six faculty deans also come from the Mainland. Many courses are taught in Pǔtōnghuà by Mainland teachers.”

According Professor Yee, the same situation is extensive to other tertiary institutions. “The President of both the University of Macau and the Macau University of Science and Technology (MUST) are Mainland scholars. Moreover, Mainland students attending local tertiary institutions have increased significantly since the 1999 handover. Indeed, more than 80 per cent of the MUST students come from the Mainland and the MUST campus is no different from any university campus on the Chinese Mainland,” wrote Herbert S. Yee in the book “China’s Macao Transformed, Challenge and Development in the 21st Century” (2014).

Professor Yee also refers to the weight of Mainland tourists visiting Macau and the government’s efforts to ensure that more public officials understand and speak Pǔtōnghuà, but it is in schools that the key to this equation lies.

“Local primary and secondary schools have introduced Pǔtōnghuà lessons after the handover. In fact, pro-Beijing ‘patriotic’ (ai guo) schools have introduced Pǔtōnghuà to pre-schools or kindergarten classes,” the former Professor of Politics and International Relations at the Macau Polytechnic Institute states in a taught in all levels.

The promotion of Mandarin in Macau is seen as pivotal to better equip local talents to seize the opportunities brought by the Greater Bay Area project.

In late 2020 the Shenzhen municipal government launched its first recruitment drive catering residents from Macau and Hong to work there as civil servants.

This reinforcement of Pǔtōnghuà contributed by the “Plan for the exchange of excellent teachers from Mainland China to Macau,” which started in 2008.

According to recent data, so far, 319 teachers have been hired under this scheme, amounting to  MOP145 million.

Although, according to the Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture, they do not carry out pedagogical functions, in the current academic year alone, 40 teachers hired from the Mainland are providing services in schools in Macau.


“Traditional Chinese characters continue to dominate in the MSAR, but it remains to be seen whether in 2049” – Jean Berlie

This led lawmaker Sulu Sou to ask for the program to be suspended, saying he had received various opinions from local teachers, concerned that teachers from Mainland China would come to Macau to guide local teachers and prepare teaching materials, without being able to speak Cantonese or without taking into account the specific educational characteristics of Macau.

“Already in Hong Kong, Pǔtōnghuà and English are gaining a larger audience. However, the percentage of Mainlanders is much greater in Macau than in Hong Kong, so that Pǔtōnghuà is more important at present in the MSAR than in Hong Kong. Traditional Chinese characters continue to dominate in the MSAR, but it remains to be seen whether [this will continue] in 2049,” Sinologist Jean Berlie wonders.


Language ability – usual language (%)

Language or dialect 2001 2011 2016
Cantonese 87.9 83.3 77.8
Pǔtōnghuà 1.6 5.0 5.3
Other Chinese dialects 7.5 5.7 5.1
Portuguese 0.7 0.7 0.6
English 0.7 2.3 2.7

Source 2001 and 2011 Census and 2016 By-Census


The joke about Deng Xiaoping

In the 90s of the last century, this was an anecdote often told behind the scenes of Taiwan’s power. It was said that while reading the Taipei newspapers, Deng Xiaoping always said yes with his head, but when he read those from Mainland he always said no.

In addition to the political irony, the explanation of the joke was quite simple. In Taiwanese newspapers, as in Macau, the arrangement of characters was top to bottom, while the characters in Mainland newspapers were arranged from left to right.

Previous | Special Report – The May 2012 controversy