Thursday, February 16, 2012

So Close Yet So Far: Chinese Citizens Without Permission to Visit China's Macau

While walking along China's Pearl River Estuary (珠江口) in Zhuhai, Guangdong province I briefly spoke with these two young women:

two young ladies in Zhuhai with sea and Macau in the background

This couple living in Zhuhai:

young couple siting on park bench in Zhuhai

These two tourists from China's Hunan province:

two young ladies posing in front of sea in Zhuhai

And these two young men visiting from China's Jiangxi province:

All of these Chinese had one thing in common: they were not able to visit the location seen in the background of the first and last photos -- Macau -- despite it being part of their own country and within reach by an easy overland walk. None of them had the appropriate special permit. Even if they had a passport they would not have been allowed to enter. Macau, like Hong Kong, is one of China's special administrative regions with its own laws, currency, police, and immigration policies. And like Hong Kong's border, Macau's border can be a blockade to people from mainland China.

However, if you are not from China getting into Macau can be much easier. According to a table on the website for the Macau Public Security Police Force's Immigration Service people from the following countries are currently exempt from needing to apply for any visa or entry permit and only need their passport:

AndorraIndonesiaBosnia and Herzegovina
EgyptMacedoniaSouth Africa
EstoniaMalaysiaSouth Korea
IndiaNetherlandsUnited Kingdom
Cape VerdeNew ZealandUruguay
Commonwealth of DominicaBulgariaU.S.A.
San MarinoMontenegroBrunei
-(a total of 69 countries)-

Additionally, Hong Kong residents are exempt from needing a visa or permit.

There are some minor loopholes to the restrictions for mainland Chinese. For example, if a mainland Chinese citizen has a passport, proof of an onward flight from Macau, and an entry visa to another country then they are able to enter Macau for a period of up to 7 days. In other words, in China a visa to another country can open the door to a section of one's own country.

Despite the restrictions, it could be argued that relative to Macau's population a large number of mainland Chinese have had access. In fact, as currently noted on Wikipedia "According to the 2006 by-census, 47% of [Macau's] residents were born in mainland China, of whom 74.1% were born in Guangdong and 15.2% in Fujian." Also, mainland Chinese play important roles as tourists and workers, especially for Macau's famous and very large gambling industry. The Independent reported several years ago:
Two-thirds of Macau's gamblers are mainland Chinese, most of them from just across the border in the prosperous province of Guangdong...

Only Macau residents can work as croupiers in the casinos, but pouring the tea, emptying the ashtrays, building the new casinos and guarding the loot as it is transported off to the banks is the enclave's army of 98,000 foreign workers. Like the gamblers, most of these migrant workers come from across the border in Guangdong...
As the article suggests, whether the permits for mainland Chinese are approved fairly is another question.

Whatever justifications there may be for the permits, their effects may be broader than they initially appear. In addition to impacting the travels of many mainland Chinese, these conditions may also affect people's sense of identity and self-worth. Some Chinese are publicly asking why people from a variety of other countries such as Japan, India, and Mongolia can more easily visit some parts of China than is possible for themselves. Some are also asking how they can expect to be treated as equals abroad when they are not even treated as equals within their own country.

It is not clear whether any significant changes are imminent and whether it is an issue of prime importance for many in country that faces a variety of immense challenges. Regardless, I could not stop myself from wondering what it is like for the people I met to gaze upon one of the more developed areas of China and know that they do not have permission to even walk along its streets. I try to imagine what it would be like for me to stand in the U.S. state of New Jersey and look across the water at New York City knowing that I would need to apply for a government permit to visit even though a Chinese citizen with a passport could enter at any time. Despite growing up in a cultural environment very different from most Chinese, I suspect I would be asking questions very similar to those that some people in China are now asking.


  1. Nice article, great photos! (and nice blog altogether). I am a foreigner (from one of the 69 countries listed above) living in China, and have visited Zhuhai a few times, also recently. The problem you sketch is real, but still it amazed me how many Chinese do cross the border to Macao everyday. It must be one of the busiest borders in the world. Over 50 passport control counters, and thousands of people lining up both inside and outside the terminal building on every single day. Most people just go for a day of shopping and/or gambling. Very few actually do travel onwards, is my impression.
    I wondered, did the people you interviewed actually intended to go to Macao? Did they apply for a permit but were refused? My Chinese girlfriend and I have crossed the border several times, and although she needs to get a special paper, it doesn't take more than a couple of hours at the Public Security Office. Still, I agree it is rather curious that Chinese citizens are more restricted than most foreigners in this matter.

    1. In most cases I did not specifically ask whether they had applied for the permit so I am not sure. The ease with which a mainland Chinese can obtain a permit in part depends on where they are from (see here for more).
      Even if they did not apply for a permit in advance from their hometown, at least in some cases it can be possible to obtain a permit close to the border as part of a "tour group" but that comes with a price.