Questions & Answers about the Encontro
Some Basic Questions (and Answers) about the Encontro – The Triennial Meetings of the Macanese Diaspora in Macau
(The Portuguese translation appeared in the Jornal Tribuna de Macau on Oct. 6.) Note: By Oct. 23, the Portuguese version was seen on social media by over 90,000 people. As of Nov. 12 over 100,000 saw the article.
Every three years Macanese from abroad are invited back to Macau for a week of planned events, tours, and cultural connection. The notice for the “Encontros”, as they are called, were always milestones for my extended family, often allowing us to reunite with relatives, school mates, and long-time acquaintances. In most cases, the regular visits over the years, some pre-dating the first organized meetings in 1993, were also opportunities to revisit sites where many refugees lived during World War II, then left for good beginning in the 1950s. Nostalgia and the loss of youthful innocence were always part of the attraction.
Since 1999, however, the significance of the Encontros has changed, largely because many who came before are aging, older relatives in Macau have passed away, and others are simply unable to travel. The meetings also have been susceptible to changing conditions in Macau and China in general. Unfortunately, the emphasis of the meetings has failed to change with the times. As a result, the relevance of the Encontros among local Macanese and those abroad, including ethnic Chinese and Maquistas, can now be called into question. Indeed, one of the ironies of the Encontros is that locals in Macau and many overseas know very little about them, since many have never been invited to attend. This ultimately raises the question: How representative of the global Macanese community are the triennial meetings?
The following is not meant to be a criticism of the Encontros’ existence, but rather to question their current emphasis and direction. One way to do this is to ask basic questions and offer answers that many may not know. It is not my intention to end the Encontros. Indeed, I feel the meetings can provide valuable opportunities for local professionals and those abroad to share cultural experiences, and seek solutions to one of Macau’s most pressing issues: economic diversification. The troubling part is that these opportunities have never been offered by Encontro organizers in the seventeen years since the retrocession, despite the expectations of the RAEM and Chinese governments that continue to appear in the press.
Let us begin with the basics.
Which Macau associations organize the Encontros? What is the history of the meetings?
Officially called the “Encontro das Comunidades Macaense”, the meetings are organized by the Conselho das Comunidades Macaenses (CCM), the Associacao dos Macaenses (ADM), and the Instituto Internacional de Macau (IIM), with the assistance of other associations and government entities. There have been eight meetings since the first one in 1993. The meetings occur every three years and have always met in Macau. The next Encontro is scheduled from November 26 through December 2, 2016.
When are the different events scheduled this year?
The 2016 schedule has not been finalized, but a preliminary list of events has been posted on CCM’s website and sent out to Casa de Macau associations overseas. The welcome reception will be held on November 26th at the Escola Portuguesa, with the opening dinner at a local hotel on the 27th, tours of Macau’s historic sites and a reception with the Consul-General of Portugal on the 28th, a presentation of development projects on the 29th at the University of Macau, followed by a “cultural session” organized by IIM on the 30th, a tour of Guangzhou on December 1st, and the closing dinner to include invited local residents on December 2nd.[i]
How much is being spent? Where does the money come from?
According to a news report, the organizing committee received 4,200,000 MOP ($525,000 USD) for Encontro 2016 from the Macau Foundation (funded by a percentage of gaming revenues), not including undisclosed institutional support from the Tourism Office, the Cultural Institute, and the University of Macau, which will increase the overall budget.[ii] Other events associated with the meetings, including an organized tour of Guangzhou, are supported by the Central Government Liaison Office. Most attendees pay for their own travel and accommodations. Encontro organizers do provide travel stipends to some Casa de Macau presidents and board members, and partial stipends to individual members who registered by the August 5 deadline. Neither the source of the stipends, or the overall Encontro budget, are revealed publically.
What is the Encontro’s stated purpose? What are the goals of the meetings in 2016?
This is where the issues become complicated. The goals of the Encontro have evolved slowly since 1993. Through 2007 the meetings were intended to allow members of Casa de Macau associations in the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Portugal, and Hong Kong to visit the region and renew cultural ties. By 2010, CCM Chairman Jose Manuel Rodrigues stated that the purpose was to meet old acquaintances and “check on” Macau’s development since 1999. Other goals were to involve youth, conduct cultural sessions, hold meetings between the CCM and overseas Casa de Macau associations, while highlighting local cuisine, and tour historical sites.[iii]
At the 2013 meetings, CCM member Jose Sales Marques stated that the significance of that year’s Encontro was the cultural “reaffirmation” of the attendees, to renew family ties, and to discuss issues of identity. For the first time, the organizers also offered a presentation on Macau’s role as a platform for economic relations between China and Portuguese-speaking countries. But while signs of an economic slowdown in Macau were already evident, the major emphasis remained focused on the past.[iv]
The goals of the 2016 Encontro seem to be addressing more pressing issues, but not what you would expect. Macau’s economy is still poorly diversified and dependent on gaming, although there are signs of a recovery. The response from Encontro organizers in the months before, however, does not include an acknowledgement of the economic situation in the planned events, but rather repeated attempts to increase attendance, apparently to justify subsidies received for the meetings.
In fact, the new president of ADM, Miguel de Senna Fernandes, conducted a special visit in May 2016 to the largest group of Macanese in California to encourage their attendance due to an anticipated lower turnout.[v] (At this writing, registration is reported to be well below the numbers in 2013: 1300 vs 840.) [vi] As Fernandes stated in an interview: “My trip to California was also an incentive for them to come. There are some who clearly were discouraged to come.” [vii] He added that new leadership at the CCM, APIM (Associação Promotora da Instrução dos Macaenses), and his own election as ADM’s president included a new emphasis on youth in the future. Fernandes added that he would be visiting Canada and Australia in 2017 as a follow up, emphasizing that the Diaspora remains an important part of the community. [viii]
To bolster the waning numbers, in August of this year principals at the Instituto Internacional de Macau (IIM) wrote to the Casa de Macau associations in the United States and Canada stating that it was sending a Portuguese academic to begin collecting historical materials and to create a database of professional business contacts in October 2016, one month before the meetings are scheduled to begin.[ix]
As some readers will recall, these two programs are strangely similar to my own research process of collecting materials and gathering data through surveys, which revealed a number young professionals who are interested in Macau’s development. (See JTM 4/8/2016) [x] I have to wonder whether those articles motivated IIM to act, especially since previous calls for collaboration have fallen on deaf ears. Unfortunately, the boards of two Casa de Macau associations in California declined to participate in IIM’s research program, and all three refused to contribute data on business professionals.
How do the goals of the Encontro align with those of the RAEM and Chinese governments?
This is a “Key Question”. At the time of the 1999 handover Dr. Gary Ngai Mei Cheong, later president of the Macau Association for the Promotion of Exchange between Asia-Pacific and Latin America (MAPEAL), wrote that it was crucial for Macau to retain its historical identity as a bridge to promote trade and cultural exchanges between China and the rest of the world. This role, he wrote, is in line with China’s strategy to diversify international ties to the countries that have Latin-heritage communities.[xi] The policy was reiterated by President Xi Jinping on September 5, 2016 during the G20 conference in Hangzhou City, when he stated that China’s aim is to “integrate further into the world” by facilitating foreign investment access across the region. [xii] Macau’s Chief Executive Mr. Chui Sai On also considers the Encontro to be an important part of this strategy, remarking in a July interview that overseas Macanese contributions are expected to be included in Macau’s development process. The Chief Executive also stated he was particularly interested in the number of participants and the costs in 2016.[xiii]
The reason for the differences in the goals of Encontro organizers and what the RAEM and Chinese governments seem to expect from the Macanese community may be clear from the selection of the meeting’s target audience. As mentioned, the traditional focus of the meetings has been on reuniting of Casa de Macau members and family, many of whom are retired and no longer working. On the other hand, the Encontro emphasis only on nostalgic tourism does not seem to be in line with China’s strategy to use Macau as a gateway for commerce.
Why are the differences in goals important?
The discrepancies can be summarized in this way. As long as China depends on Macau for cultural and business connections, it is up to the Macau government, and Macanese locally and in the diaspora, to follow through with programs that contribute to the larger strategy of using local resources to diversify the economy. At the very least, Encontro organizers could increase efforts to include Macanese professionals and entrepreneurs from abroad who could meet with local SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and discuss partnerships. But this has never been done. As I stated in a previous JTM article, the inability of Macanese associations to make such connections and provide services that contribute to Macau’s recovery may no longer be acceptable in the current political and economic climate.[xiv]
How representative is the Encontro of the global Macanese community?
What makes the lack of action worse is the apparent misrepresentation of the Diaspora by these associations to the RAEM and Chinese governments over the last seventeen years, especially in their erroneous claim that they represent all Macanese abroad. Clearly, the involvement of younger Macanese who want to contribute to Macau’s development is not part of their plan. The expected development of cultural and commercial connections also have been repeatedly brushed aside, and in some cases, ignored.[xv] There have been virtually no programs, incentives, or other organized attempts to include professionals in the diaspora who are currently working. In fact, there have been news reports of little outreach to younger Macanese abroad, including ethnic Chinese and Maquistas.[xvi]
The only outreach from CCM has been to thirteen affiliated Casa de Macau organizations overseas that receive funding, which number less than 8,000 members at last count, the majority of whom are retired and apparently no longer interested in coming to the Encontros. This outreach has not included the great majority of the 1.5 million Disapora Macanese who are virtually cut off from Macau, largely because there has been no concerted attempts by local associations to reach them. This is a huge waste of potential, opportunity, and in the end, public resources.
Even some Casa de Macau members seem frustrated with the management of the Encontro, as expressed privately by individuals and association directors. (Their requests for anonymity are often based on fears that CCM funding will be jeopardized.) As ADM’s Fernandes admitted, many have been reluctant to travel overseas. I would suggest the reason may be that there are no real plans for a new direction, nor actual programs for young professionals inside and outside Macau to participate.
Conclusion: Resistance is Futile
As Gary Ngai warned as early as 2014, the present strategy of doing nothing, which is closely related to the present direction of the Encontros and other association initiatives, is not only foolhardy, but may be detrimental to the future of Macau and Macanese abroad. The status quo may effectively continue the city’s marginalization as an appendage of Zhuhai, or worse, could hasten the decline of Macanese culture in China, both of which Beijing is trying to avoid.[xvii] The key is to initiate programs and services that will expand economic opportunities beyond gaming for all communities in Macau.[xviii]
Again, the opportunities for dialogue and collaboration remain open, but only if vested interests and personal agendas can be set aside.
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[iii] JTM, Nov. 23, 2010
[iv] JTM, Nov. 25, 2013
[v] Ponto Final, June 1, 2016
[vi] Ponto Final, July 12, 2016
[vii] Ponto Final, June 1, 2016
[viii] See my article on the visit published in JTM on June 24, 2016
[ix] Information provided from an unnamed source at their request
[x] JTM, Aug. 4, 2016
[xi] Dr. Gary Ngai, “Macau Communities: Past, Present, and Future”, p. 113, published in Macau: Cultural Dialogue Towards a New Millenium, eds. Ieda Siqueira Wiarda and Lucy M. Cohen, Xlibris Corp. 2004.
[xii] Hoje Macau, Sept. 5, 2016
[xiii] Hoje Macau, July 12, 2016
[xiv] JTM, July 8, 2016
[xv] JTM, Feb. 26, 2016
[xviii] Previous responses to deny these issues, attack critics, and ultimately resist change, are also no longer options.