Macau’s Perilous Lure for China’s Cadres

Two high-profile cases in the Pearl River delta are throwing into doubt the Chinese government’s efforts to ban civil servants from going to Macau and squandering public money:

  • Wu Huali is chief of police in Huizhou, a booming city in the Pearl River delta, and a national anti-corruption hero during his previous tour of duty. Now he is under arrest at a Guangzhou guest house — for spending more than 10 million yuan in public money in the casinos of Macau.

  • In the city of Foshan, also in the delta, the head of a post office, He Liqiong, is awaiting trial for stealing 1.8 billion yuan from 352 accounts in the postal savings bank. She was paying back hundreds of millions of yuan she lost in the enclave’s casinos.

These are just the latest in a long series of arrests of Chinese officials who believe, apparently erroneously, that they can beat the odds in Macau, despite the fact public servants are banned from gambling, at home or abroad, and they need approval from their superiors even to visit Macau. Those who work in financial departments need special approval while those in the security divisions are banned from going to the former Portuguese colony at all.

Earlier this year a government notice reiterated the ban, calling gambling by officials “malpractice” and saying that “swift correction and severe punishments” would be meted out to any official who was caught.

But Wang Zeng, a researcher at Beijing University, estimates that officials gamble up to 600 billion yuan in public money every year in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea as well as Macau. In 2006, Macau overtook Las Vegas in gambling revenue and now boasts giant casinos with a level of opulence, comfort and technology that match any in the world.

For Wu, government controls allegedly were an opportunity to make money. As chief of police, he was responsible for the issuance of passports and visas. He was arrested at the end of September together with the head of the Huizhou police entry and exit bureau. Prosecutors say the two earned money for their gambling sprees by selling exit permits into Hong Kong to prostitutes and other unqualified people.

This scam came to light at the end of 2003, when the Hong Kong police discovered that a large number of prostitutes and illegal workers they had arrested from Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan, had obtained their exit permits from the same city — Huizhou.

Wu, 48, a Manchurian by race, was highly regarded by his peers. He was deputy chief of the anti-drugs brigade of Guangdong province in 1998 and served for five years as police chief in Zhanjiang, one of the area’s most corrupt cities. His work in combating triad activities in Zhanjiang won him widespread media coverage.

For her part, the post office official, He, started to gamble in Macau in 2001 and lost heavily. She borrowed from three Macanese loan sharks who lent her money at high interest rates. She continued gambling in the hope of recovering her losses but failed and was forced to steal money from postal accounts under her control.

The two are hardly alone. They are among dozens of officials sentenced for gambling in Macau. The record loss is held by Zhang Zonghai, the former head of the propaganda department of Chongqing city, who was detained after losing 100 million yuan at the casinos. A close second is Jin Jianpei, the Hong Kong representative of a Hubei state firm, who was executed for losing 97.48 million yuan.

Also executed was Ma Xiangdong, the former vice mayor of Shenyang, who lost more than 10 million yuan in three days. Lan Pu, vice mayor of Xiamen, got a suspended death sentence after losing 3.5 million yuan in a single day. Duan Maisong, the general manager of a Zhuhai firm, took his own life by swallowing poison after losing 10 million yuan.

In July 2003 the number of mainland visitors to Macau overtook the number going to Hong Kong. During the “Golden Week” holiday, October 1-7 this year, 390,000 mainlanders went to Macau, an increase of 32 per cent over the same period last year, each spending an average of HK$1,032 per room and giving the territory an 85% occupancy rate.

With exit permits easy to obtain, officials can hide themselves among this army of visitors. They usually get away with it due to lack of supervision, says Ren Jianming, a professor at Qinghua University in Beijing.

“So much power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, leading to trading of power and money,” Ren said. “This is the source of corruption. We must accelerate reform of the government management structure to control gambling and other forms of corruption by officials.”

The campaign against gambling by civil servants poses a dilemma for Macau. The biggest profits for its casinos come not from the so-called grind market, the common people who fritter away a few thousand yuan, but from big spenders who bet millions and are given free rooms and meals by their hotels. Many of these are senior officials and managers of state companies with access to large sums. The issue has become a matter of dispute between the governments in Beijing and Macau, according to journalists in Macau.

Beijing is said to have demanded a list of the big spenders, which the Macau government is unable or unwilling to provide. It wants its customers to gamble away fortunes in privacy, away from the prying eyes of the public and their own government. It remains to be seen how long the territory can tests Beijing’s patience – this could become a serious question for the multinational gaming operators who have poured billions of US dollars into investments there.

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