Special Report – Judiciary: what remains of bilingualism

A doctoral thesis carried out in Macau in 2016, among the Portuguese community based here, showed what has always been known: “there is no interest from the Portuguese community in learning [Chinese] in a general way,” says Vanessa Amaro, the author.

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

The researcher highlights the “bubble” in which some Portuguese live, who have adopted the idea that they can make a living without needing to learn Chinese because “they have their routines, their friends, they close themselves in their groups and do all their life on the Portuguese circuit.” Symptomatically, only six of the 60 interviewed by the author spoke Cantonese fluently.

Vanessa Amaro’s research was carried out with Portuguese who emigrated to Macau before and after the handover and the author notes in this field that there are no differences: it has always been so and it seems that it will always be so.

The only area in which Portuguese remains relevant, 20 years after the Portuguese administration said goodbye, is justice.

But in this chapter, it is not possible to speak of justice as a whole.

On the one hand, it is known that the laws of Macau continue to be drafted in Portuguese and only after this are they translated into Chinese, to be debated and if necessary, voted on. This means, there are always two versions of each law and this is one of the last remnants of bilingualism in Macau.

But in the courts, sentences are increasingly in Chinese and in many cases only in Chinese. In minority situations, only in Portuguese.

The most understandable position emerges from the Court of Final Appeal (TUI), which ensures that all judgments and decisions are given in the language that the procedural parties dominate – 50 of the 77 judgments handed down in 2017/18 were issued in both official languages (the rest in Portuguese only).

Below the TUI, cases of bilingualism are rare. Decisions are made only in one of the two languages, mainly due to the native language of the judge who decides or the lawyers involved.

“Given that the majority of the records and decisions of the Courts of First Instance are written in Portuguese and the lawyers constituted by the parties mainly use Portuguese language in the intervention of procedural acts, these are the factors that hinder full use in the Court of Second Instance, from the Chinese language in appeals trials,” can be read in the Judicial Year Report, 2017/18 (the last one available online).

“There is a gap between the legal language and the language used in the society of Macau, which is also the main focus contradiction of the Macau society in terms of the official language issue.” – Leong Sok Man

“If the original intention for the official language of Macau of the legislators of the Macau Basic Law is a coexistence relationship of ‘the majority language’ and ‘the minority language’, it is obvious that the proposal in the foreword of Decree No. 101/99/M that ‘both the Chinese and Portuguese are the official languages of Macau with the principle of equal dignity’ is not consistent with the original intention of Article 9 of the Macau Basic Law,” argues researcher Leong Sok Man, One Country Two Systems Research Center, Macao Polytechnic Institute.

That’s why Leong Sok Man also states, “Government shall clarify the issue in the concept.” Without this, “there is a gap between the legal language and the language used in the society of Macau, which is also the main focus contradiction of the Macau society in terms of the official language issue.”

The use of languages in the courts of Macau 2017-2018

 Both languages Only Chinese Only Portuguese Total
Court of Final Appeal 50 27 77
Court of Second Instance – Crime 336 265 601
Court of Second Instance – Non-crime 24 214 238
Primary Court of Macau 211 11,318 1305 12834
Criminal Preliminary Hearing Court +90%  
Administrative Court 100%  

Source: Judicial Year Report 2017-2018


In addition to justice, there are also situations in the public administration of how Portuguese prevails over the Chinese language.

With the help of our readers, we identified two:

–       In housing property ownership proof documents, we want to ensure that the description is clear. In Portuguese is “1º andar A,” using the western style numbering system. The Chinese people count the ground floor as the 1st floor, “一樓”. If people said that the Chinese language prevailed, then all the housing property ownership registrations in Macau would be incorrect. In this technical example, the Portuguese version must be used if the versions between Chinese and Portuguese seem contradictory. This is fundamental to protect citizens’ private property ownership (Hong Kong also follows the western system in floor numbering).

–       People in Macau are obligated to have a name (surname(s) + given name(s)) in the Latin alphabet, and they are not required to have a Chinese name if they choose not to. A person can be officially known as “CHAN Sio Meng, José,” with no legal Chinese name (in Chinese characters) attached to any of his official identity documents.

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