One of China’s most ingenious bribery schemes: the professional poker loser

November 12, 2012

Chinese President Hu Jintao speaks during the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

Chinese leader Hu Jintao marked the beginning of the end of his 10-year term with a warning: official corruption "could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state," he announced last week as the Communist Party Congress began. The week-long congress will see Hu hand off power to Xi Jinping, whose 10-year term is expected to face daunting, perhaps even existential, challenges to China's rise and the system that got it there.

Hu's warning about official corruption and its threat to the Communist Party's rule has long been repeated by scholars and experts both inside and outside China. Corruption, they say, weakens public trust in the government, erodes that government's ability to behave responsibly, and saps an economy that is already slowing.

That's the macro view. For the micro view, consider Beijing's professional poker loser. As Jamil Anderlini reports in the Financial Times, his job is to use poker as a cover for bribing government officials on behalf of a real estate developer. The best part of this phenomenon is that the developer started outsourcing his bribery to the poker player not to evade police, but because bribing the officials himself was getting too time-consuming. And, with all the drinking usually involved, it was bad for his health.

In fact, things had become so bad for the property developer that he had come up with an ingenious way to outsource his bribery. He now organizes private high-stakes poker games with well-connected officials but hires a professional player to represent him. He allows the officials to play on credit, shows up to drink a few toasts and play a few rounds, tells his representative poker pro who to lose big to and then goes home to bed in the interests of preserving his liver and his sanity. 

Real estate is famously important for China's economy – much of the nation's economic growth has come from building highrises to accommodate the hundreds of millions of rural Chinese moving into the big cities. Real estate is also notoriously corrupt. Developers can make enormous sums of money, and Communist Party officials are often the gatekeepers to their fortunes: they control permits, approve or reject projects, and can help "relocate" families whose homes might sit on valuable land.

With so much money at stake, perhaps it's not surprising that corruption is as routine as this story suggests. Still, when government officials are answering to the highest-paying developers rather than to the public will – or to the party bosses concerned with maintaining sustainable economic growth – their decisions on how to guide China's all-important real estate sector might not necessarily be the most beneficial for their country.

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Olga Khazan | November 11, 2012