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When you talk about gambling in China, you enter a very interesting conversation. On the face of it, China takes a particularly tough stance on gambling, although there are various factors which soften the blow more than just a little. We will discuss Macau and Hong Kong at a later stage because these regions are viewed very differently to mainland China. On the mainland, gambling is prohibited. However, what is considered to be gambling in this part of the world is open to interpretation. This is a country with a long history of gambling, so trying to eradicate part of the social culture is no easy matter.

Archaeological evidence suggests that gambling, in one form or another, has taken place for thousands of years in China. Various games have been discovered in burial grounds which may well have been used for betting. It is known that lotteries were used as a means to fund construction of the famous Great Wall of China. Dice dating back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ has also been discovered, leading to the conclusion that gambling was common practice. Written evidence of a rich history of betting on sports is offered as further proof. That’s a brief snapshot of the history of gambling in China, but how does that translate to the current status of gambling in this country?

State-run lotteries are extremely popular in China, and not considered to be a form of gambling. It is, therefore, no surprise that they are legally available. Unlike most countries, China does not consider sports betting to be a form of gambling either, which means it is also available. As you can see, the definition of ‘gambling’ is unique in China. Other forms of gambling which are permitted include the lottery style Keno game, as well as scratchcards, and video gaming terminals. Plus, of course, there are the many international betting sites which offer their services to Chinese residents. A lot of these use the Chinese language and specifically target this enormous and potentially very lucrative market.

The wording of the law prohibiting gambling in China is quite interesting. It states that anyone who “for the purpose of profit, gathers people to engage in gambling, runs a gambling house or makes gambling his profession” may be subject to a fine or even imprisonment of up to three years. This phrasing is rather vague, and certainly does not regulate online gambling – in fact, if taken at face value, it would suggest that online gambling is perfectly legal. However, in practice, any form of gambling – except those approved by the state – is strictly policed. This means that both the company and the individual gambler can face fines or even a spell in prison if they are caught.

Illegal gambling is still thriving on the mainland of China despite heavy policing. In 2010 a Daily Telegraph investigation estimated that the illegal gambling industry was worth in the region of a billion yuan – that’s estimated around $160 million at current exchange rates. Much of this takes the form of betting on card games, the national game of Mahjong, and games played in secret local casinos. In addition, there is also online gambling available from international operators, which the government has tried to combat by blocking ISPs. This has had limited success, and the state policy of pursuing those engaging in gambling resulted in an estimated 350,000 prosecutions in 2012 alone. Most of these people had to pay fines, although prison sentences were also given to some offenders at the discretion of the local police forces.

Hong Kong and Macau are both now fully Chinese regions, but they retain the legacy of their former British and Portuguese owners. This is reflected in general society which tends to be more western and liberal than on the mainland. Macau, in particular, is a gambling hub that since 2007 has surpassed Vegas in terms of revenue. It is now the largest gambling destination on the planet. Gambling in this autonomous region has been legal since the middle of the nineteenth century and now accounts for around 50% of the local economy. Casino games, sports betting, and lotteries are all legal in these regions. Macau is also the only place in China (to date) where land-based casinos are legal.

The former British colony of Hong Kong has had legal gambling since 1977, not quite as long as Macau. Betting on football matches and lotteries are permitted in Hong Kong. Horse racing too, but only via the state-sanctioned Hong Kong Jockey Club. Gambling with a bookmaker is not legal, and neither are casinos. The famous Hong Kong Jockey Club has been going since 1884 and today generates the largest turnover on horse race betting in the world. As such, it is hardly a surprise to discover that the Club is the largest tax-payer to the Hong Kong government.

At the moment, there is little sign that the Chinese government will change its policy on gambling on the mainland. Illegal gambling activity for individual gamblers and organised betting rings is vigorously pursued. Underground casinos face even higher penalties when caught. It is safe to assume that there is a thriving gambling scene which still goes on the mainland. The proliferation of online gambling sites makes it even more popular, despite the best efforts of the government to clamp down. The success of Macau as a gambling centre certainly gives the government something to consider, and there have been intimations that casinos will appear in selected locations on the mainland. For now, the average resident must rely on state-approved forms of gambling in order to make legal bets in China.