Kapok | Another tyranny of numbers

Eric Sautedé

Back in August 2015, I remember musing about the irony that, on the one hand China was the place where the oldest census in the world had been conducted, back in 2 AD, and on the other hand that Macao, the cradle of the encounter between two great scientific traditions, was being run on the basis of extremely farfetched studies and vague figures — dubious in themselves and, far worse, rarely fully available or fully explained.

As I pointed out at the time, censuses constitute the backbone of any public policy, and thus head counts are crucial in determining what policies come first, with what kind of allocation of adequate means. All things being equal, if your population is getting younger, then you might consider building more schools, with roads leading to these and appropriate public transportation to cater to them. If on the contrary, your population is ageing, investing in retirement homes, day-care centres and the training of nurses to visit regularly senior citizens who are ever more physically impaired might prove a wise move. This is pretty straightforward.

At the time, I was aiming at the newly released — and fallacious — Study Report on the Population Policies of Macao, prepared by the government’s Policy Research Office. To my dismay (sort of), the report was actually an exercise in statistics sugarcoating and ex-post facto validation. Tough challenges got buried and recommendations were merely programmatic.

What got to be discussed at the time was the official press release on the report and the declarations made by Lao Pun Lap, the head of the Policy Research Office. To be honest, and even though I have strong reservations about the actual capacity of Mr Lao who has unfortunately been in the job since 2006, the full report made available later in the year did provide interesting points for discussion, despite being overly descriptive rather than prescriptive — after all, the full report is 125 pages long.

Yet, the flaws of the two key findings that made the headlines in the summer last year — the conservative and optimistic acceptance that the Macao population would reach 710,000 by 2020 and the carrying capacity 22,000 people per sq. km by 2025 — just got manifestly confirmed.

With the publication of the partial results of the 2016 population by-census (the last full census was in 2011), we now know for a fact that the average annual growth rate of the population increased dramatically in the past five years, at 3.3%, compared to an annual 1.9% between 2006 and 2011.

Our population is now 651,000, and if we use this latest yearly average growth rate, that means that the Macao population should reach 741,000 by 2020 and could make it to 765,000 by the next full census of 2021… It is to be noted that the projections posted on the DSEC website actually envision 752,000 by 2021, so one really wonders where the Policy Research Office got its figures from!

With the diversification drive in the making, the planned opening of thousands of new hotel rooms and the services appended to an ageing population, it is difficult to imagine the dynamic of the past five years being curbed, even though one cannot exclude populist measures to be adopted at the approach of the 2017 legislative elections to severely limit the number of new non-resident workers—the bread and butter of the population growth in the past decade.

A more numerous population would thus translate into a more pressing population density, meaning 23,000 people per sq. km.— still “not saturated”? And then, the district of Areia Preta and Iao Hon remained the most populated of the territory, home to more than 75,000 dwellers or a staggering 12% of the population. What is then the actual density in this northern part of the territory? What kind of peculiar social issues does this entail?

The full results of the by-census will only be made public in April 2017: this might explain why population issues just benefitted from a passing comment on only two pages out of 100 in the five-year plan released last September…

Categories Opinion