China steps up anti-gambling campaign

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Beijing (北京; pinyin: Běijīng) —Chinese President Hu Jintao is stepping up a government campaign to eradicate illegal gambling in China, detaining over 4,000 gamblers in an effort to clean up the public image of the Communist party.

Cadres and officials within the party have been caught using illicit funds, sometimes embezzled from local, state-run organizations, to gamble at casinos set up in border-towns within North Korea, in Macau, and in other popular gambling resorts outside of the direct control of the mainland government.

To assuage any fears that this latest campaign extends to ordinary working-class citizens, Deputy Public Security Minister Bu Jingfu has announced that ordinary citizens need not worry about being prosecuted for "friendly" games of mahjong. He did not specifically address whether mainland citizens should reconsider visiting the numerous mahjong gaming parlors which dot urban centers throughout the country.

"The whip that is used to beat wolves should not be used to beat sheep," stated Bu Jingfu.

China allows a "social welfare" lottery, for which citizens can purchase tickets that help to fund social programs. However, this legal form of gambling is mostly favored by lower-income players who don't have the opportunity to travel to the lavish gaming casinos frequented by the wealthier class of businessmen and party officials who can travel across the border on easily obtained one or two-day visas.

Despite relatively harsh penalties for those who are caught participating in illegal gambling operations, a number of provinces are well-known for hosting high-stakes gamblers in illegal, underground operations that are run on the mainland under the noses of local authorities. To combat these operations on a national level, the Public Security Ministry has sent 13 "inspection teams" to these provinces in an attempt to crack down on these operations.

One historian believes that China's government, which in its various forms has tried to stop avid gamblers for thousands of years, will have no better luck with its current campaign, than it has in the past.

"It is really hard to get rid of gambling," said Guo Shuanglin, a professor of history at People's University in Beijing.

Guo explained, "There were strict laws against gambling in almost every dynasty in China. Take the Song Dynasty, for example, when gamblers were sentenced to death. In the Ming Dynasty, gamblers' hands were chopped off. Even in the period of the Republic of China, they had a very strict anti-gambling law."

As far away as Las Vegas, casino operators are seeing a shift in demographics for their most elite players, called "whales", who are known to bet upwards of US$50,000 a hand. Since the 1980s, Las Vegas has seen a shift from Japanese businessmen to Chinese players, who now make up over 50% of the high-end clientele at some Las Vegas casinos.

Shen Mingming, a Beijing University expert on Chinese gambling, is skeptical that China's government can sustain a long-term campaign against gambling.

"It means long hours for the police, and it cannot be sustained," he said. "When the campaign is over, these organizations just quietly come back to life. Can you keep doing these campaigns every few months?"

However, this time China's government has set up a special telephone number, to encourage citizens to turn in government officials who are embezzling government funds for illicit gambling runs.

China has recently conducted a series of high-profile arrests of corrupt officials who are caught gambling with public funds, two of whom used tens of millions of dollars to fund their gambling lifestyle.

The government has also made one special arrest to show that even high-level officials are not immune to prosecution due to their party position. Cai Haowen, who had been groomed by former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, was arrested this month on an overnight train in Jilin (吉林; pinyin: Jílín) province, while fleeing authorities for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars and losing it all while gambling.

Finally, China is starting to crack down on the easy visa programs which have permitted so much traffic to gambling emporiums outside of mainland government control. The new visa program requires that records be kept of the identity of the visa holder. This new visa requirement has started to have a noticeable effect on some border-town casinos, leaving a number of properties with idle employees and few Chinese customers.