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China to purify cyber gamblers, build harmonious society

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Due to its proximity to mainland China, gambling development in Macau has exploded - recently even surpassing Las Vegas' legendary Strip in revenue terms - and international players, such as Ladbrokes, have been positioning themselves to expand into the mainland itself when the time is right.

It could be a long wait.

The mouthpiece of the Chinese government, Xinhua news agency, recently announced that the Chinese government has set its sights on crushing the unlawful internet gambling industry.

The Chinese government banned gambling, among other popular vices, back in 1949 after the Communists pushed the more vice-friendly Nationalists off the mainland into Taiwan. In the decades since then, the mainland has periodically instituted "spiritual purity" campaigns to purge the masses of whatever spiritual pollution persists, and to purge the government and party ranks of those who have fallen out of favour.

"The prevalence of online gaming has ruined the online environment and harmed young people's growth, which runs against the policy of building a harmonious society," said a circular jointly issued to Xinhua by the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Information Industry, and the State Press and Publication Administration.

If official statistics are to be believed, China's police busted a total of 347,000 gambling cases involving 1.1bn people and recovered 3.56 billion yuan (US$445m) last year.

According to Xinhua, the circular goes on to note - in language that would no doubt tug at the heartstrings of their counterparts at the Department of Justice - that local government departments must strictly supervise online game service providers to ensure they are not exchanging "virtual money" with real currencies or properties, or using accounts to launder money.

One can only hope that the emerging Chinese generation of internet gaming addicts can be purified before they make the ultimate sacrifice.

Less than a year and a half ago, the government began introducing "obsession controls" to popular casual gaming portals, after the alleged death of a young World of Warcraft player.

As Xinhua eulogised at the time: "(A) young girl nicknamed 'Snowly' died last month after playing the online game World of Warcraft for several continuous days during the national day holiday. Snowly's friends, who share the same game community, say that Snowly was a very diligent member and a key official of their community, who was always connected to the internet. Several days before Snowly's death, the girl was said to be preparing for a relatively difficult part of the game and had very little rest. She told her friends that she felt very tired."

Whether or not "obsession controls" is a euphemism for government surveillance and control, the combination of run of the mill Chinese political pressure and propaganda will prove to be a powerful disincentive to those seeking to market their services online in the mainland.

Bank account drained, cold hand still clutching the mouse of a frozen Wintel machine, it's easy to imagine little Snowly's gambling addicted uncle or hypothetical cousin becoming a vehicle for an anti-gaming campaign of a more serious sort.

If this heralds the beginning of a gambling purge, those hoping for an open market for online gambling in China better get comfortable. They could be settling in for a long, unnerving ride. ®

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