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Date Posted: 16:30 18/01/2005

Striking hard against gambling

The Chinese authorities launch yet another campaign

FAR BE it from Running Dog to indulge in cultural stereotypes, but the Chinese, it seems, love to gamble. We know for a fact that casinos in Great Britain specifically target the country's Chinese community, translating their signage, their leaflets, their promotional materials into Mandarin and Cantonese.

Under such circumstances, it might be regarded as especially cruel of the Chinese government to remain so strict about betting on the mainland. In the current 'strike hard' campaign, the Chinese government is even trying to ensure the closure of the dozens of border casinos that have opened up in Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Russia, Mongolia and - bizarrely, perhaps - North Korea. That the madcap Stalinist dictatorship in Pyongyang should consent to allow Chinese tourists to cross the border and gamble away their money is one of the great ironies, but according to Beijing's Xin Jing Bao, it seems that a Hong Kong-based tycoon, taking advantage of certain special economic zone concessions along North Korea's heavily quarantined Chinese border, is the main investor. In any case, the newspaper reported last Friday that as many as 50,000 Chinese gamblers crossed the border into North Korea from the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province last year with the express purpose of throwing away their cash at the 'Emperor Entertainment Centre'. The report said that the streams of customers were all Chinese, which is hardly surprising, given the fact that the local North Koreans are not allowed in.

China, in any case, plans to do all it can to shut down those border casinos, cutting off the stream of Chinese custom by closing all nearby border checkpoints, and even cutting off water and electricity supplies to the facilities wherever they can.

In Yunnan, where the gambling crackdown began on a trial basis at the beginning of December, the authorities have already reported some success. Of the 82 casinos lying along the border of the province, 68 have already been forced to close, said the Legal Daily, refuting earlier and more optimistic reports that they had all now been shut down. Some of the casinos 'filtered through into China through the Internet,' Legal Daily said, and some of them even set up underground liaison offices within China's borders. 105 bosses have been arrested, and 338 gambling groups have been smashed. 41 'mobile casinos' have been eliminated.

'Strike hard' campaigns are, of course, particularly common in China. The authorities habitually respond to a particularly heinous incident - in this case, it was a Jilin provincial official stealing public funds - and choose to crack skulls for six months, after which, the status quo ante bellum usually reasserts itself. Shanghai residents might be familiar with the famous crackdown of Summer 2000, when the local police - responding to an incident on Julu Road involving a naked bar girl and dozens of baying foreigners, which just happened to be videotaped by a neighbour and sent to the police - chose to close a number of bars and enforce strict midnight curfews in the most popular bar areas. The hookers disappeared for a while, and the streets were quiet, but the noise and the squalour and the pools of dawn vomit gradually returned. Such social pus-draining is a thankless, Sysyphean task.

But 'strike hard' campaigns are everywhere, and have included battles against illegal internet cafes, oil thieves, drug or porn smugglers, unlicensed mine operators, wild animal traders, corrupt officials or state enterprise bosses, poor quality food products, dishonest advertisers, 'evil cults of all kinds', mafia-like behaviour, medical rackets, superstitious practices, and many, many more.

The Public Security Bureau has in this case stressed that while it will crack down on 'gambling crimes', it will exclude legitimate 'mass entertainment activities' such as poker or mah-jong, and perhaps the small-scale cock-fighting pits in Yunnan and elsewhere. A spokesman for the campaign's special committee said that they would not be targeting the games played by neighbours, families and friends during the upcoming holidays. While it does not approve of such activities, the government will rely on education to root them out.

Of course, one of the biggest targets of the strike-hard campaign is the horde of government officials siphoning off public money to throw recklessly at roulette wheels in Macau. Last year, one particular egregious case involved the hardline Propaganda chief of the municipal government of Chongqing, Zhang Zhonghai, who had tried to rule the news industry with a rod of iron during his term of office, constantly urging greater government control over the press and condemning local journalists as troublemakers. And with good reason, it seemed. Soon enough, the press was delighted to report that the official had amassed 9 million RMB in earnings, none of which he could satisfactorily account for. He was also said to have been among the party of officials who squandered 200 million RMB of public money at a casino in Macao. As in roulette, what goes around, comes around.

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