China appears to be intensifying its crackdown on overseas gambling, with the country’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT) announcing this week that it would extend its travel blacklist of overseas gambling jurisdictions. According to a report in the gaming industry publication CalvinAyre.com, the MCT plans to cooperate with “relevant departments” to extend its blacklist of “cross-border gambling tourist destinations”: i.e. countries that promote gambling tourism for Chinese nationals.
The blacklist, first announced in August of last year, seeks to prevent Chinese nationals from traveling to casino destinations, which are alleged to be “endangering the personal and property safety of Chinese citizens.” The list of blacklisted destinations has not been made public, but it’s fair to assume that it includes a number of destinations in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Cambodia, and Myanmar – all of which have recently became home to casinos and online gambling operations aimed at Chinese nationals.
Since 2016, the Philippines has developed a thriving online gambling industry, mostly run by Chinese nationals out of Manila high-rises, which targets customers in mainland China, part of a global industry that turns over an estimated $24 billion annually. Beijing has pressured the government to shut down the operations, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has resisted banning the business, because of the licensing fees and other economic benefits that it has brought to the country.
During the same period, Cambodia has also seen a rapid growth of Chinese gambling operations (of both the in-person and online variety), particularly in the coastal city of Sihanoukville. Formerly a sleepy backpacker haven, the city has metastasized into a dusty, neon-drenched landscape of casinos and high-rise hotels that was at one stage linked by air to some 27 destinations in mainland China.
Sihanoukville’s casino economy has been attended by a whirlwind of social problems, including organized crime, drug use, trafficking, prostitution, and general lawlessness, which have begun to excite a worrying (from the perspective of Beijing) anti-Chinese backlash among the Cambodian public.
In Myanmar, meanwhile, gambling operations have long flourished in the hilly borderlands lying close to China’s Yunnan province, in autonomous zones controlled by rebel armies and ethnic armed groups.
The tightening of the travel blacklist is part of China’s broader attempt to rein in the regional gambling boom. The blacklist was first announced in August of last year, around the same time that the authorities debuted new propaganda videos extolling the evils of gambling.
Last week, the Chinese embassy in Cambodia issued a notice following a series of violent crimes, urging citizens to avoid gambling and high-paying recruitment traps. According to a precis by the Cambodia-China Monitor Twitter account (a handy resource for those monitoring the relations between the two countries), the Chinese-language notice “warns that online gambling crackdown is stepping up, encourages reports from public and surrender from offenders.”
This follows the online gambling ban imposed at Beijing’s urging in January 2020, which, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen an apparent exodus of Chinese investors from Cambodia. The two nations have also cooperated in rounding up Chinese scammers and criminals operating on Cambodian soil.
China has long been suspicions of overseas gambling destinations, and has frequently attempted to shut them down. In 2005, China sent troops over the border to close down casinos in the town of Mong La, the capital of a rebel-controlled crescent of territory just inside Myanmar’s border.
In 2011, the Chinese authorities cut off the electricity supply to the border town of Boten, just inside the border of Laos, which had become a similar crossborder gambling center. In both of these cases, Beijing was concerned both about the treatment of its citizens who were held hostage over unpaid gambling debts, and the fact that Chinese officials were frittering away public money in crossborder casinos. This suggests that the current crackdown is motivated as much by concerns about capital outflows and organized crime as by worries about the welfare of its citizens abroad.
Whether Beijing’s anti-gambling drive is successful remains to be seen. Past efforts have tended to demonstrate the limits of China’s ability to rein in the activities of its citizens abroad. While the present construction of a wall along the Myanmar-China border may make illicit travel to Myanmar’s casino enclaves more difficult, it is hard to see the Chinese government banning its citizens from traveling to Manila or Phnom Penh.
The same is even truer of those entities (both Chinese and local) involved in overseas gambling operations, which, by definition, are rarely paragons of probity – and are usually adept at evading government control. Add to this the fact that online gambling operations are much more mobile than traditional gambling operations, and serious doubts remains as to whether Beijing has the ability to bring them to heel.
A cautionary tale might be offered by the case of Mong La. After the Chinese government shut down its casinos along the border in 2005, the territory’s rulers readjusted. Some old casinos were repurposed as administrative buildings, their facades scrubbed clean of playing cards and tumbling dice, while others fell into disuse. At the same time, the rebel army that governs Mong La set about setting up new casino operations some 10 kilometers south of the border. Safe from the reach of the Chinese authorities, they flourish there, in a miasma of neon, to this day.