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Type of Government

Macao is governed as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. It is directly under the authority of the Chinese central government but has a high degree of independence in its economic and political affairs.


Macao is one of two special administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China (the other is Hong Kong). It is located on the southeastern coast of China on the Pearl River estuary. The Macao Special Administrative Region comprises the Macao Peninsula, which extends from Guangdong province to the islands of Taipa and Colôane; the islands are connected to the mainland by bridges.

Because of its strategic location, Macao became a stopping point for international merchants early on. The area was first settled in the mid-sixteenth century by the Portuguese, who established a trading post there for commerce between Lisbon, Portugal, and Nagasaki, Japan. Beginning in 1670 Portugal leased the Macao Peninsula from China and appointed a governor to oversee its operations, though the Chinese retained official sovereignty over the territory. Macao thrived as a center of trade until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was eclipsed by Hong Kong, which became a free port under British control in the 1840s.

Portugal stopped making lease payments to China in 1849 and declared Macao independent of Chinese rule. According to the Treaty of Tianjin (1862), Macao became a Portuguese colony; however, the Chinese never ratified the treaty, so the territory was never officially ceded to the Portuguese. Macao’s status was resolved by the Protocol of Lisbon (1887), which stipulated that China would recognize Portugal’s right to occupy and govern Macao; in exchange Portugal agreed that it would not transfer the territory to another country without China’s approval.

Following a military coup d’état (sudden overthrow of a government) in Portugal in 1974, the Portuguese government granted independence to Macao and recognized the region as a Chinese territory. The Chinese, however, did not accept the territory until 1979, when diplomatic relations were established between Portugal and the People’s Republic of China. The two nations finally reached an agreement to return Macao to Chinese rule in 1987. According to the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration, Macao was declared a special administrative region within China, effective on December 20, 1999.

Government Structure

Macao is governed as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. It is directly under the authority of China’s central government, which controls defense and foreign policy matters, but has a high degree of independence in its economic and political affairs. Macao’s relationship with China and its governmental structure are outlined in the Basic Law of the Macao Special Administrative Region, which was adopted in 1999.

The president of the People’s Republic of China serves as Macao’s head of state. The chief executive serves as the head of government and is appointed to a five-year term by China’s central government on the recommendation of a three-hundred-member election committee. The chief executive is advised by the ten-person Executive Council.

Macao’s legislature, the Assembleia Legislativa da Região Administrativa (Legislative Assembly of the Macao Special Administrative Region), is unicameral—that is, it has only one chamber. The Legislative Assembly consists of twenty-nine members serving four-year terms: twelve members are directly elected by popular vote, ten members are appointed to represent the region’s main constituencies, and seven members are chosen by the chief executive.

The Macanese legal system is based on Portuguese law. The judiciary was administered from Portugal until 1993, when an independent court system was established. The Tribunal de Ultima Instancia (Court of Final Appeal), headed by a chief justice, is the ultimate judicial authority. All judges are appointed by the chief executive on the recommendation of a selection committee.

Political Parties and Factions

Macao has no formal political parties, but several political associations are represented in the legislature, including the Associação de Novo Macau Democrático (New Democratic Macao Association), the Associação dos Cidadãos Unidos de Macau (United Citizens Association of Macao), the União para o Desenvolvimento (Union for Development), and the União Promotora para o Progresso (Union for Promoting Progress).

Major Events

After more than four centuries of Portuguese rule Macao was returned to Chinese rule in 1999. The Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration, which was approved by the National People’s Congress of China in 1993 and became effective in 1999, gave the Macanese the right to elect local leaders, to travel freely within China, and to preserve their unique cultural heritage; in turn, the Chinese government assumed responsibility for Macao’s defense and foreign policy. The Basic Law of the Macao Special Administrative Region, which also took effect in 1999, serves as Macao’s constitution. The treaty and the Basic Law are to remain in effect until 2049.

Twenty-First Century

In 2000 Macao held its first elections under Chinese rule, turning out a record number of voters and electing a Chinese-majority legislature. The region’s key challenge in the twenty-first century is the preservation of its independence and unique heritage under Chinese authority.

Gunn, Geoffrey C. Encountering Macau: A Portuguese City-State on the Periphery of China, 1557–1999 . Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996.

Shipp, Steve. Macau, China: A Political History of the Portuguese Colony’s Transition to Chinese Rule . Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997.

Yee, Herbert S. Macau in Transition: From Colony to Autonomous Region . New York: Palgrave, 2001.

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Macao (also Macau), a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China, occupies a small, hilly peninsula located on the west shore of the Pearl River (or Zhujiang River) on the southeast coast of China. Originally less than 15 square kilometers (5.8 square miles), the peninsula and the adjacent islands of Taipa and Colôane have expanded by land reclamation since the early twentieth century to 27 square kilometers (10.4 square miles). The population in 2004 was approximately 460,000, 95 percent comprising Chinese immigrants from the South China provinces, plus a small number of perhaps no more than 5,000 Macanese, the mixed-blood descendants of early Portuguese unions with Asian peoples.

Macao was founded in 1557 by Portuguese traders seeking a location for a permanent commercial settlement. Until the founding of Hong Kong nearly 300 years later, Macao was the only permanent European settlement in China. By 1600 Macao had become a thriving cosmopolitan city, its prosperity founded on the trade network from Goa in India, to Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, to Macao, and on to Nagasaki in southern Japan.

By the mid-seventeenth century the Portuguese seaborne empire declined precipitously under the assault of the Dutch, who took Malacca in 1641. In 1640 Japan expelled all foreigners and closed the country. Macao's prosperity collapsed, and the city survived as a center of local Southeast Asian trade. As the new colonial powers, led by Britain, arrived in pursuit of the China trade in the late eighteenth century, Macao's importance was revived as a temporary refuge for Europeans involved in the Canton (Guangzhou) trade. But when Hong Kong was founded by the British in 1842 in the wake of the first Opium War (1839–1842), Macao was relegated to a backwater, its inferior harbor increasingly unable to accommodate modern ships. By the early twentieth century Macao had acquired notoriety for gambling and various forms of vice. Its principal industries then included matches, fireworks, incense, furniture, and cheap toys. After World War II (1939–1945) Macao's economy remained stagnant, but the establishment of a gambling syndicate and the growth of tourism in the 1960s saw its slow revival.

China had never ceded sovereignty over the territory, and the Portuguese paid ground rent for the privilege of occupation. In the late nineteenth century Portugal attempted to claim formal sovereignty over Macao and a treaty in 1887 recognized Macao as a colony under perpetual Portuguese occupation. Its status remained ambiguous until the 1980s when Hong Kong's ultimate return to China in 1997 was settled with Britain. Negotiations between China and Portugal led to the return of Macao to Chinese control on December 20, 1999. The agreement preserved Macao's economy, society, culture, and quasi-autonomous government for at least fifty years.

From the 1980s Macao experienced rapid economic growth and expansion. Tourism and gambling grew vigorously with the construction of an airport, new hotels, and casinos. Fifty-five percent of municipal revenues derive from a tax on gambling. In 2002 the gambling monopoly was opened to bidding and new Las Vegas syndicates won places in Macao. Macao's robust economy has become an integral part of the Pearl River Delta economic region.

see also China, After 1945; China, First Opium War to 1945; China, to the First Opium War; Chinese Diaspora; Empire, Portuguese; Hong Kong, from World War II; Hong Kong, to World War II; Opium; Treaty Port System.


Cheng, Christian Miu Bing. Macau: A Cultural Janus. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1999.

Porter, Jonathan. Macau: The Imaginary City, Culture, and Society, 1557 to the Present. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.

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Macao (məkou´), Port. Macau, Mandarin Aomen, special administrative region of China, formerly administered by Portugal (2005 est. pop. 449,000), 6.5 sq mi (16.9 sq km), adjoining Guangdong prov., SE China, on the estuary of the Pearl River, 40 mi (64 km) W of Hong Kong and 65 mi (105 km) S of Guangzhou (Canton).

Land, People, and Government

The most densely populated place in the world, Macao consists of a rocky, hilly peninsula connected to China's Zhongshan (Tangjiahuan) island and an island consisting of the former islands of Taipa and Colôane, now joined to each other by landfill (an area known as Cotai). The island is connected to the peninsula by bridges. The capital, the city of Macao, is approximately coextensive with the peninsula and contains almost the entire population of the province.

Macao's historic structures include the remaining facade of St. Paul's Basilica (built 1635 by Roman Catholic Japanese artisans; burned 1835), a fascinating example of late Italian Renaissance architecture, with mixed Western and Asian motifs; St. Domingo's church and convent (founded c.1670); the fort and chapel of Guia (1626); the fort of São Paulo de Monte (16th cent.); and statues of da Gama and Luís de Camões, who wrote (1558–59) part of The Lusiads there. Macao is separated from China proper by a barrier gate (built 1849, replacing one erected by the Chinese in 1573) and waterways.

The inhabitants are overwhelmingly Chinese and about half are Buddhist; there is a Roman Catholic minority. Cantonese and other Chinese dialects, as well as Portuguese, are spoken. Macao is ruled under the Basic Law as approved by the National People's Congress of China in 1993.


A free port, Macao is a trade, tourist, and fishing center, but gambling casinos account for most of its GDP. There are also textile, clothing, electronics, footwear, and toys industries. Most of Macao's transit trade with China is by way of its shallow harbor on the west side of the peninsula. Tourism, mainly for gambling, is extremely important to the province, with many coming from nearby Hong Kong and the mainland. Restrictions on foreign investment in casinos were lifted in 2001, and by 2006 Macao had exceeded Las Vegas in total money gambled. There is daily ferry and bus service to Guangzhou and ferry, hydrofoil, and helicopter service to Hong Kong. Taipa is connected to Macao city by bridges. An airport opened in 1995.


The colony's name is derived from the Ma Kwok temple, built there in the 14th cent. Macao was the oldest permanent European settlement in East Asia. It was a parched and desolate spot when the Portuguese established a trading post there in 1557. For nearly 300 years the Portuguese paid China an annual tribute for the use of the peninsula, but in 1849 Portugal proclaimed it a free port; this was confirmed by China in the Protocol of Lisbon in 1887. With the gradual silting up of its harbor and the rise (19th cent.) of Hong Kong, Macao lost its preeminent position and became identified to a large extent with smuggling and gambling interests.

After 1949 the population was swelled by an influx of Chinese refugees from the mainland. In the winter of 1966–67, Communist-organized riots shook the province, resulting in a capitulation by the Portuguese to Chinese demands to bar entry to refugees and prohibit anti-Communist activities. In 1974, Macao was established as a Chinese territory under Portuguese administration; the Chinese refused to accept the return of the territory at the time. A real-estate boom in the early 1990s had largely waned by the end of the decade, but with end of the monopoly in its gambling industry the territory began a new period of real-estate and economic growth. Under the terms of a 1987 agreement, Macao became a special administrative region under Chinese sovereignty in Dec., 1999. Macao has been promised 50 years of noninterference in its economic and social systems.

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Macao (Macau) Former Portuguese overseas province in se China, 64km (40mi) w of Hong Kong, on the River Pearl estuary; it consists of the 6sq km (2sq mi) Macao Peninsula and the nearby islands of Taipa and Colôane. The city of Santa Nome de Deus de Macao (co-extensive with the peninsula) connects via a narrow isthmus to the Chinese province of Guangzhou. Vasco da Gama discovered Macao in 1497, and the Portuguese colonized the island in 1557. In 1849, Portugal declared it a free port. In 1887, the Chinese government recognized Portugal's right of ‘perpetual occupation’. Competition from Hong Kong and the silting of Macao's harbour led to the port's decline at the end of the 19th century. In 1974, Macao became a Chinese province under Portuguese administration. It returned to China in 1999. Gambling and tourism dominate the economy. Other industries: textiles, electronics, plastics. Pop. (2000) 656,000.

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Macao ★★★ 1952

On the lam for a crime he didn't commit, an adventurer sails to the exotic Far East, meets a buxom cafe singer, and helps Interpol catch a notorious crime boss. A strong film noir entry. Russell sneers, Mitchum wise cracks. Director von Sternberg's last film for RKO. 81m/B VHS, DVD . Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, William Bendix, Gloria Grahame; D: Josef von Sternberg.

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