by Xinhua writers Xu Lingui, Ren Yaoti
MACAO, Dec. 11 (Xinhua) -- Choi Hio Lam was born in Macao near the turn of the millennium.
Like most millennials the world over, Choi grew up in an increasingly affluent society. But she and her Macao cohorts stand out from the international pack as 1999 marked a shift of fortune for the former Portuguese colony.
Choi was only eight days old when Macao returned to its motherland on Dec. 20, 1999, to become a special administrative region of China under the "one country, two systems" principle.
Today, Choi studies traditional Chinese music in Beijing and says she is as excited about the upcoming 20th anniversary of Macao's return as her 20th birthday.
In just two decades, Macao has been transformed into a much more prosperous cosmopolis with a rapidly developing economy, modern infrastructures and an excellent social welfare system.
As the first generation born in Macao after the city's return, Choi and her peers benefit from the boom and are empowered to dream big.
"It has been a good and happy life for our generation in Macao," said Choi.
Into the new millennium, more investment has been poured into the Macao Special Administrative Region (SAR) to improve its infrastructure, education and public security.
Its gross domestic product (GDP) has increased from 51.9 billion patacas at its return to 444.7 billion patacas (about 55 billion U.S. dollars) in 2018. The GDP per capita of the region has reached about 83,000 U.S. dollars in 2018.
Fuller coffers have enabled the government to offer 15 years of free education, from preschools to high schools. According to the Higher Education Bureau of the Macao SAR, public education expenses of Macao in 2019 were seven times higher than in 1999.
According to a recently released report from the Programme for International Student Assessment 2018, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, among the 79 participating countries and regions, Macao's 15-year-olds ranked third in reading, math and science.
Macao students not only score better in tests but also have better chances to pursue their extra-curriculum passion.
For Choi, she began learning music at the age of three, starting with the piano. But influenced by her grandfather, Choi soon found her true passion was for gu zheng, a classical Chinese zither.
And Choi was not alone, as Macao saw the popularity of traditional Chinese instruments grow markedly in the first decade of the century.
Cultural exchanges expanded and more attention was paid to the education of traditional Chinese culture.
After graduating from high school, Choi set her sights on studying traditional Chinese music at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
Her parents tried to dissuade her from going and argued that finance or business might be better choices, but Choi insisted.
New in Beijing, Choi found she had a lot of catching up to do if she was to keep pace with her classmates. But she practiced hard, seven to eight hours a day, and managed to master her skills.
In October, Choi was invited to play at the 33rd Macao International Music Festival. She now plans to go overseas to bring the beauty of traditional Chinese instruments to the world.
Choi is one of a growing number of Macao youth coming to study in or visit the mainland every year.
This is made possible by both the public and private sectors through projects like exchanges between middle schools in the mainland and Macao and themed activities in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.
Alex Mok, the head of the Macao Youth Federation, said such exchange activities would help pass on the fine tradition of patriotism in Macao.
"We want to let young people in Macao know that without our motherland, we wouldn't have what we have," Mok said.
Macao's young generation also shines on the international stage.
The Labour Affairs Bureau of the Macao SAR trained a total of 104 young representatives to participate in the WorldSkills Competitions from 2001 to 2019.
Fong Hok Kin, now 23, won the highest award for Macao competitors in 2017 when he bagged the gold medal for web design and development at the 44th WorldSkills Competition in Abu Dhabi.
Yet the gold medal was just the beginning. Apart from working at a start-up company, Fong is developing an online system for grocery stores and aims to promote it in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.
"The competitiveness of Macao's youth is reflected in their integrative qualities," said Sou Chio Fai, director of the Higher Education Bureau of the Macao SAR.
Bakery lover Choi Ka Kei, 21, won a medal for excellence in a WorldSkills Competition bakery contest by blending traditional Macao snacks.
Choi said she would continue improving her bakery skills as Macao is poised to become a world center of tourism and leisure.
Tourism is a pillar of the local economy. In 2018, Macao, with a tiny population of about 670,000, received some 35.8 million visitors.
Macao officials and tourism insiders gave credit to the central government's policy support and the mainland's rapid development for Macao's tourism boom over the past two decades.
Fanny Vong, president of Macao Institute for Tourism Studies, said the school's enrollment is expanding every year to meet the tourism industry's huge demand for talent.
"Many students have secured job offers when they are on internships," she said.
In recent years, Macao has also been consolidating its position as a platform for commercial and trade cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking countries, offering Portuguese-speaking Macao young people more opportunities in the Belt and Road Initiative projects.
Government statistics show that the proportion of Macao's students entering college after high school has grown to over 95 percent, and about 82 percent of Macao students are capable of getting a full-time job within half a year after graduating from universities in and outside Macao.
"They are a happy generation," said Sou.
The first 20 years after Macao's return has brought a huge number of opportunities for the younger generation, and the trend is expected to continue in the next 20 years. "Young people of Macao need to take the chances presented to them, and actively create opportunities for themselves," Mok said.
Paulina Pereira Che was 20 when she served as a volunteer for activities of Macao's returning to the motherland 20 years ago. Although she is no longer young, Che said she, like everyone else in Macao, will continue to be a beneficiary of Macao's development.
A senior manager in a transnational enterprise in Macao, Che said, "For the next 20 years, 40 years, I will stand with Macao, with my country to pursue common development and prosperity."