The Chinese love to have a flutter


Lotteries, land gambling and the Internet serve a massive and not always legal market

The Daily Telegraph carried an interesting article over the weekend in which it examined the firmly established gambling culture of the Chinese nation, a pastime that has continued to flourish despite being largely outlawed on the Chinese mainland since the Communist Party took power in 1949.

Rising incomes have combined with the advent of new ways to gamble, such as foreign internet betting websites, to maintain an interest in gambling that continues to grow, the newspaper observes.

There are just two officially sanctioned lotteries in China. But an estimated one trillion yuan (GBP 900 million) is also wagered illegally each year in China - equal to the entire economic output of Beijing.

"It is a staggering figure for a country where 700 million people - more than half the population - live in rural areas with an average of just 4,700 yuan (GBP 415) a year [income]", the article comments, adding that gambling takes place in card and mah-jong schools on street corners, in underground casinos in the cities, through unofficial lotteries in the countryside and on hundreds of websites catering to internet gamblers.

But the popularity of gambling has inevitably included a downside: illegal gambling has spawned huge and increasing numbers of addicts.

'Based on international statistics for countries with developed gaming industries, 2 or 3 percent of gamblers have a problem,' Wang Xuehong, director of Peking University's Centre for Lottery Studies, who has made a study of China's problem gamblers told the newspaper.

'In China it's more than that, because people are still not rational when it comes to gambling.'

The article goes on to chronicle tragic stories of the consequences of problem gambling for punters and their near and dear ones, and some unconventional treatment methods employed by former card sharks.

State assistance is hard to come by, apparently. Wang Xuehong has been trying unsuccessfully for years to persuade the Beijing municipal government to let her open a gambling addiction centre.

She has been allowed to set up China's first help line for problem gamblers, and despite a ban on advertising the telephone number, her staff are overwhelmed by calls.

Yet they can only listen. 'We can't do anything to help them because we don't have a treatment centre,' said Mrs Wang. 'If people have a really serious problem, we ask the local government if they can be admitted to a mental hospital.'

There are booming casinos in Macao, the former Portuguese colony that neighbours Hong Kong and is the sole corner of China where gambling is allowed. Otherwise the official lotteries are the only legal outlet for a bet.

Set up in 1987, they raise 100 billion yuan (GBP 90 million) a year in revenue for Beijing. But Mrs Wang thinks that figure is dwarfed by the money wagered illicitly. 'I'd estimate that 10 times more is spent on illegal gambling,' she said.

She believes the government gains so much from the lottery that it won't admit to, or tackle, China's gambling crisis. 'Many calls are from people addicted to buying lottery tickets,' said Mrs Wang. 'These are people who are going bankrupt, who have been divorced by their partners, who want to commit suicide."

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