Macau campus in China a magnet for illegal immigrants

A new campus of the University of Macau, which has relocated over the border in China, has become a magnet for illegal immigrants trespassing on its land.

Although the new university buildings, which were completed in July, are technically across the border from Macau in the Chinese mainland city of Zhuhai, the area has been designated as an autonomous Macau Special Administrative Region, or MSAR, of China.

Macau, a former Portuguese territory in the South China Sea and adjacent to Hong Kong, was handed back to China in 1999 and has its own laws, currency and frontier controls. It is connected to the mainland by a long bridge over the Pearl River.

The just-completed campus of the University of Macau, or UM, located on the eastern edge of Hengqin Island under Zhuhai’s administration, is now connected by a kilometre-long, unguarded road tunnel under the water.

This provides 24-hour access from Macau that bypasses immigration checks and customs. A special bus route through the tunnel was inaugurated at the end of August.

“Now, with the new campus, the area of Macau has been enlarged by about one square kilometre, which is a historic moment and a monumental milestone for the development of both Macau and the Chinese mainland,” said Simon Ho, UM vice-rector for academic affairs, in an article published in the official China Daily commemorating UM's opening in July.

“It constitutes an extension of Macau's territory practically, different from the rest of Hengqin Island,” said Ho.

Illegal attempts

The publicity surrounding the unusual project did not escape the notice of Chinese workers trying to sneak into Macau. Four men were captured by frontier police officers in the early morning of 21 August, Macau Daily News reported.

The four, from Guangdong and Henan provinces, said their purpose for crossing the border was to work illegally in Macau, according to police.

The Zhujiang Evening News reported on 8 September that since construction of the new campus was completed and its management was transferred to the MSAR on 20 July, local frontier officers in Zhuhai have stopped many people trying to cross the border illegally.

“The newly built campus is under Macau's administration and under the jurisdiction of its laws,” an officer with the province's No. 5 frontier police force, stationed in Zhuhai, was quoted as saying.

The official Xinhua news agency revealed that some 117 illegal border crossing attempts had been thwarted during the three-year construction of the university, including an “extraordinarily serious drug trafficking case”.

Posters warning, “Those who climb over fences of the University of Macau will receive administrative punishment”, have been erected around the perimeter. Others say “Tip-offs will be rewarded”.

Frontier police lookouts and patrols have been strengthened and the Zhuhai authorities have said infrared sensors will be set up surrounding the high wall that cuts the campus off from the rest of China. Because of the wall, the campus will have its own fire and police stations.

Academic freedom

Much has been made of the academic freedoms granted to the university that China’s universities do not currently enjoy, including exemption from internet restrictions commonly known as the ‘Great Firewall of China’.

“In terms of governance, the UM project is very different from other foreign institutions renting a campus site from a city of the Chinese mainland,” noted Ho.

“People in the new campus will use the Macau currency, practise academic freedom, have unrestricted internet access, and enjoy social and political rights as they do in Macau.”

The arrangement was highly unusual, Ho added, and this solution to Macau's shortage of land “seemed almost a miracle” when it was agreed.

The university submitted a proposal to the MSAR government in 2008 suggesting several sites for the new campus, including leasing land on Hengqin Island. UM also requested that the campus should come under the legal jurisdiction of MSAR on completion.

After much discussion by Guangdong provincial authorities, Zhuhai and the Macau government, and with the support of the central government in Beijing, the standing committee of China’s parliament, the National People's Congress, passed a bill in June 2009, authorising the Macau government to have legal jurisdiction upon completion.

New campus

Some 2,000 students have now transferred from the Macau campus to Hengqin, which is 20 times the size of the cramped old premises. In total, 8,000 students are expected to transfer by the end of the year. Around 80% of the students are from Macau, the rest from the mainland.

The old campus had little room to expand amid a massive building boom in the past 10 years fuelled by Macau’s gambling economy. Macau is sometimes known as the ‘Las Vegas of the Far East’.

The Macau government paid the US$1.5 billion cost of construction and about $150 million for a 40-year lease up to 2049, when the 50-year agreement signed in 1999 that gives Macau autonomy under China’s ‘one country, two systems’ agreement comes to an end.

“The new campus is a very difficult project because it involves cross-border works, dual technical standards, double legal jurisdictions and multiparty coordination,” Ho said.

“This is not merely a campus project but a significant milestone in the cooperation between Guangdong [province in China] and Macau as well as an unprecedented innovation under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” said Ho, referring to the autonomous government arrangement under which both Macau and Hong Kong were handed back to China in the 1990s while retaining their own governments.

He said many people would regard such flexible and innovative arrangements between China and the Special Administrative Region as “inconceivable”.

The new campus will enhance higher education in Macau and be a launch pad for UM, “to project itself into the rank of first-rate universities”, he said.

The university intends to double the current 400 staff to around 700 to 800 and hire internationally. The main teaching language is English.