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Taiwan a magnet for Macao students


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Sat, 17th Oct 2009
Before the advent of higher education in Macao local students looked elsewhere to further their studies. Many chose Taiwan and even today the island continues to attract Macao students. (October 2009)

“In 1957, together with dozens of other Macao students, I took a boat to Taiwan. The sea was very rough. The men were talking a lot and threw up. We ladies were not talking and did not throw up. There was no university in Macao then and it was hard to get into one in Hong Kong.”

Au Kam-yeung, principal of Lingnan Middle School in Macao, is one of thousands of Macao people who have studied at universities in Taiwan. This autumn, more than 2,000 will go - a substantial portion of the city’s high school graduates.

Education is Taiwan’s biggest contribution to the development of Macao. Its universities have educated thousands of Macao people; many hold high positions in the government and private companies and celebrate their connection to Taiwan through active alumni associations.

The island is also Macao’s third largest source of tourists, after the mainland and Hong Kong. Last year 1.32 million Taiwanese travelled to Macao, of whom 317,000 left the airport to visit the city. Macao gives visa-free access to Taiwanese.

Official and business ties have boomed since the Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou was elected Taiwan’s leader in March 2008. Ma has reversed the anti-Beijing policies of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian, opening the way for closer ties with Macao, as with Hong Kong. His government hopes Macao will follow the example of Hong Kong, which opened an office of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council in Taipei last year.

In June this year, Hong Kong and Taiwan agreed to set up trade and economic councils to boost cooperation, following the first formal visit of a Hong Kong official since the city reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

“Beijing supports Hong Kong sending officials to discuss cooperation with Taiwan,” Stephen Lam, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, told a briefing in Taipei. “Our cooperation now surpasses what we could have done previously.” This sets a model for Macao to follow. 

Warming ties 

Chyan Chuann-Deng, deputy director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in Macao – Taiwan’s unofficial office – said that since Ma took office there had been a marked increase in bilateral visits by officials and business people.

“In January, we had a delegation of over 100 including four mayors from central Taiwan to promote sales of tea and other agricultural products. We are hoping to start flights from Macao to Taichung to promote tourism. The Taiwan side is in favour but Air Macau fears that there will not be enough demand,” he noted.

In October, Macao will host a major seminar on property development, with 1,000 people from all over the mainland. Among them, 200-300 will go to Taiwan to look at investing in property there.

“We hope that Macao will open an office similar to the one set up by Hong Kong,” Chyan said. “In Taiwan, there are 6,000-7,000 Macao students and 200,000 visitor-arrivals from Macao each year. This year two of the students had motorcycle accidents and the Mainland Affairs Council (of the Taiwan government) had to take care of them, since there was no Macao office. Currently, they use a public relations firm to promote Macao tourism in Taiwan.”

“Our budgetary situation is not so good, but that of the Macao government is different. Such an office would be good for tourism, culture and business. This will be an issue for the new chief executive to deal with. We hope for more trade and economic links and a new department within the Macao government to look after Taiwan affairs,” he said. The improved relations meant that the centres for disease control in Macao and Taiwan were able to contact each other directly this year, in dealing with the H1N1 flu epidemic.

However, Ma’s open-door policy has dealt a major blow to Macao’s airport, which relied heavily on carrying Taiwanese to the mainland when there were no direct flights between mainland China and Taiwan. The two sides started direct daily flights, shipping and postal services across the Taiwan Strait last December, ending a six-decade ban.

Taiwanese can now fly directly to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Air passenger traffic between Macao and Taiwan this year has dropped 30 percent from a year earlier and freight traffic more than 50 percent. The two Taiwan airlines which fly to Macao, Eva Air and Trans-Asia, have put their planes on direct flights. Air Macao does not have the licence to operate such flights and is expected to post a heavy loss this year.

Bilateral trade is small, totalling US$435.5 million last year, with Macao exporting US$29.5 million and importing US$406 million of goods (see table below). 

Taiwan’s business presence in Macao is small, because its economy is dominated by gambling, in which Taiwan has no expertise or experience. Some Taiwanese are employed by the casinos to attract high-spending gamblers from the island. Three major Taiwan firms have offices in Macao – the two airlines and Bank SinoPac.

Taiwan’s strength is in manufacturing, a declining industry in Macao. A small number of Taiwan businessmen live in Macao and run factories across the border in Zhuhai, Zhongshan and other cities in western Guangdong.

Training Macao students 

“If I had not gone to Taiwan, I would have received no college education.” Leong Kei-yiu speaks for thousands of Macao people. In 1975, he went to study electrical engineering in Taiwan and is now senior manager of network operations at the Macao Telecom Company (CTM). What attracted Leong was the high quality of education, reasonable fees, the same traditional Chinese written characters as those used in Macao and an atmosphere that welcomes outsiders. 

“Chiang Kai-shek had just died and things were very tense. My parents opposed my going, but I persuaded them. The Taiwan people were very warm toward us and invited us to meals. We did not think of politics. I worked for one year in Taiwan and then came back to work in CTM.”

“The atmosphere for study is better than in the mainland. Students who go there really study. In addition, Mandarin is a real asset for work, as companies have more and more dealings with the mainland,” said Leong, who is also the president of the Association of Taiwan University Alumni in Macao.

Macao students started going to Taiwan universities in 1950, one year after the Kuomintang government had moved there from the mainland. It brought with them thousands of highly qualified university teachers and staff, who re-established in Taiwan the colleges they had left behind in the mainland.

They had preferential policies for overseas Chinese, with low fees, especially for public universities, making it easy for Macao students to enter. Admission to the University of Hong Kong was very difficult and Macao’s first university was not set up until 1981. Besides, many Catholic and Protestant schools in Macao used teaching materials from Taiwan and encouraged students to go to the island to pursue higher education. 

The most popular subjects among Macao students in Taiwan have been engineering, management, media, English, education and medicine. Most of the Macao students returned and have gone into the government, engineering, teaching and the private sector. About 10 percent remained in Taiwan, such as doctors, lawyers and those in high-technology fields, who find greater career opportunities and higher salaries than at home.

Au Kam-yeung, the principal of Lingnan Middle School, went in 1957 to study architecture at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan. “I studied for four years, coming home each year by boat or plane. The education was free and living costs were free. I had a very good time. Very many talented people went to Taiwan to study,” she said.

“Unlike the colonial government of Hong Kong, the colonial government in Macao recognised Taiwan academic credentials. In the 1980s, the government began to localise the civil service, and graduates from Taiwan began to move into government jobs,” she said.

Leong Hong-sai, head of the geotechnical department of the Civil Engineering Laboratory of Macao, went to study engineering in 1988. “It was a good atmosphere. When we came back, we had meetings with ‘left-wing’ people who feared that we would set up a pro-Taiwan faction. But we went to study and not do politics. Later I had many scholarly exchanges with Taiwan, inviting professors and scholars from there. We keep in touch with former teachers,” he pointed out.

Katrina Cheong Wai-kam, head of the information and public relations office at the University of Macao, went to study in Taiwan in 1994. As she put it, “It was the time when the Internet was coming in. In Taiwan, we could use it at once, while the mainland was less open. We had a strong sense of belonging, a sense of comradeship with the other students and our seniors. We often go back and say ‘returning to Taiwan’.”

Her fees at National Cheng Kung University were 10,000 patacas a year. She received an allowance from the university and had an interest-free loan from the Macao government, so it was no economic burden to her. “We were not involved in politics in Taiwan and did not favour one party over another.”

Before 1997, Macao people could apply to become citizens of Taiwan and be treated as such in the labour market. Since 1997, however, they need to apply for a visa. This change has encouraged more students to return home; in addition, the Macao economy has boomed over the last 10 years, offering more job opportunities.

Leong Kei-yu said that the trend of Macao people going to Taiwan would continue. Universities there, especially public ones, are cheaper than those in Macao or the mainland. A public one costs NT$25,000 and a private one NT$100,000. Taiwan is an open society, with free access to the Internet. It has a social atmosphere similar to that in Macao and many of its universities are of a higher standard than in Macao.

Two-way flow 

After 1966 transport links between Taiwan and Macao were cut, so visitors from Taiwan had to go via Hong Kong and apply for a costly visa. The number of Taiwan visitors slumped. In 1986 and 1987, it was 306 and 520 respectively. This changed on December 1, 1987 when Taiwan lifted the ban on its people going to the mainland. The number of Taiwan visitors to Macao rose to 14,007 in 1989 and 15,301 in 1990. In 1990, the Macao government agreed to allow the opening of an unofficial body, the Macao Trade and Travel Office, staffed by representatives from Taiwan. After Macao’s return to China on December 20, 1999, this office changed to its present name Taiwan Economic and Cultural Centre in Macao. Exchanges have increased by leaps and bounds since then, both in the number of Taiwan tourists and those coming to set up businesses in the Pearl River Delta.

Going the other way were 10,000-20,000 unskilled Macao people, mostly in the construction industry, during Taiwan’s boom years in the 1990s. Most have returned home due to the economic slowdown in Taiwan.

The Kuomintang has retained ownership of one important piece of real estate in Macao, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial House (see story on life of Sun Yat-sen in Macao).

Wu Zhiliang, a member of the administrative council of the Macao Foundation, said that during the years of no direct links between the mainland and Taiwan, Macao acted as a bridge. “It held seminars and forums, bringing the two sides together. Macao has played this role for many years. In Hong Kong, you could not do this as there was too much public attention.”

“We have a different way of solving problems to that of Hong Kong. We are very practical and do not talk too much until the problem is solved. With direct links, this role of Macao has diminished but has not disappeared. There are more and more cultural exchanges with Taiwan and many Taiwan professors come here.”


By Mark O'Neill in Macao

(Issue N. 1, October 2009)