Gambling with sharks

By Wen Ya Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-9 23:28:01

Casino card dealers during a simulated game inside the Solaire Resort and Casino in Manila, the Philippines, on March 14 Photo: CFP

Casino card dealers during a simulated game inside the Solaire Resort and Casino in Manila, the Philippines, on March 14 Photo: CFP

Despite sometimes tense relations with China, the Philippines remains a popular destination for Chinese tourists. In the first quarter of this year, over 130,000 Chinese tourists visited, making them the fourth biggest market, according to figures from the Philippines tourism authorities.

One attraction for these travelers is gambling.

It can be a dangerous game. According to a notice issued by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on July 3, several tourists have recently become indebted to local gambling dens, prompting loan sharks or casino workers to detain and torture them.

In response, the MFA notice urged Chinese citizens not to gamble there.

The notice said that casinos attracted Chinese businesspeople to the country via agents on the Chinese mainland. Brokers then offered credit to Chinese visitors to gamble, and when large debts were accrued, they told them to ask their family to pay.

"Gambling is legal in the Philippines. Once detained, it's difficult for them to flee," said the notice.

The masterminds behind the schemes are not necessarily Filipinos however. A network of Chinese agents is also active on the Chinese mainland. They track down customers and offer them the chance to gamble in places such as the Philippines, even if they don't have the money to do so.

Caught in the net

A handful of Chinese citizens involved  in gambling problems have asked the embassy for help recently, an official from the Chinese consulate in Laoag, northwestern Philippines, who refused to be named, told the Global Times Tuesday. He also described a story told to the consulate by a Chinese businessman at the end of June.

At first, the middle-aged man visited the consulate on June 27 claiming that he had lost his passport and then the consulate issued him a travel certificate. During the chat, the man changed his story, and said that he had been cheated into handing over his passport.

He said that he had been invited by a businessman surnamed Chen in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, to inspect a tourism business in the Philippines, and that he and another man came to the Philippines on June 14.

Chen told the man he would look after his passport after they touched down in the Philippines. Then the three were led to a casino in Santa Ana, a city famous for gambling. The man said he had no money but Chen offered to lend him some, which ultimately led to his predicament, which didn't include beatings but he was held captive.

When the official attempted to contact the man again however, his mobile phone number was no longer valid. "He might have returned to China," the official said.

Links to China

Many licenses for gambling facilities in the Philippines are registered by Filipinos but managed by people from the Chinese mainland, according to the official.

"As gambling in the country is legal, gambling debt is legal too. With legal debt, it's difficult for someone to leave the country," the official said. "We only protect the legal rights of Chinese citizens and it's impossible for our government to pay off gambling debts for these people."

Gambling has become a more common pastime for Chinese people visiting the Philippines in recent years. Often, they are led there by Chinese agents working throughout the mainland.

In a typical case revealed by the Ministry of Public Security, Chinese police in August 2012 arrested more than 100 people including agents working for a Philippine gambling company on the Chinese mainland. The company's members were scattered across 29 provinces. Police found about 10,000 associated bank accounts with over 20 billion yuan ($3.26 billion), the China Police Daily reported.

In rich coastal provinces such as Zhejiang and Jiangsu, professional gambling agencies take Chinese citizens overseas to gamble "for free." These agents are particularly active among wealthy social circles.

One such case involved a manager surnamed Zhuang from a company in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province.

Introduced to gambling by a man surnamed Ma, Zhuang gambled in Macao and lost 2 million yuan. He then lost 10 million yuan at a casino in the Philippines in 2010. The casino detained Zhuang at a hotel and beat him all day, demanding he ask his family to pay the debt, the Nanjing-based Modern Express reported.

"Without money, your family will wait for a dead body," the casino told Zhuang. Zhuang then asked Ma for help, but Ma said he could do nothing and suggested Zhuang should follow the casino's orders.

Zhuang had to call police in Changzhou. With help from Chinese police, Chinese people in the Philippines and Interpol, Zhuang returned to China. "I almost lost my life and will never gamble again," Zhuang said.

In January 2011, Ma and other three people were arrested in China. The four had made more than 2 million yuan in commissions by facilitating Chinese citizens to gamble in China's neighboring countries on over 40 casions in 2010, the Modern Express reported.

These kinds of events are common in Myanmar, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, Australia and the US. Rich Chinese citizens are often targeted, Zhuang Guotu, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

China loses 600 billion yuan in overseas gambling every year, according to the Modern Express.

Booming business

In addition to the recent opening of the $1.2 billion Solaire Casino, three large casinos are planned for the Philippine capital Manila, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal that indicated that Chinese plutocrats would be among the targeted clientele along with wealthy locals.

Besides Chinese, South Koreans and Japanese are also among the most common foreign gamblers in the Philippines, said Zhuang Jia, a Chinese manager at a travel agency in Manila.

"Gambling is very common in the country and it is part of the travel and restaurant business. We have no right to stop our clients from gambling if they want to," Zhuang Jia said. "Legal casinos usually have no problems. But in a few cases, criminal gangs and illegal lenders get involved in gambling."

Zhuang Jia thinks that Chinese mainlanders have a bias against gambling because gambling is illegal in China. However, to Zhuang Guotu, gambling is inextricably linked with problems and a negative image.

"Many Chinese like gambling as they think it is exciting. Gambling embodies human weaknesses and makes the image of Chinese worse," Zhuang Guotu said. "If criminal cases happen overseas, it's difficult for Chinese authorities to intervene and it is expensive to resolve."

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