BEIJING -- For seven weeks, Cai Haowen was among China's most wanted fugitives.
Cai, a mid-level transport official in the northern part of the country, embezzled $332,000 and borrowed another $90,000 from companies under his supervision, police said, then gambled it away in 27 visits to a casino just across the border in North Korea. Cai's gambling expeditions did not escape notice, people in the region said, but authorities looked the other way because he was viewed as a protégé of the former president, Jiang Zemin.
A Chinese police officer smashed gambling machines last month in Shijiazhuang, in Hebei province. Historians say that Chinese have been avid gamblers for centuries, and that the government has long tried to rein them in.
(China News Photo Via Reuters)
Jiang retired in September 2004, however, and by mid-November investigators were closing in. Alerted, Cai went underground and the chase was on, with heavy coverage in the news media and the offer of a $6,000 reward. Acting on a tip, police arrested him early Feb. 6 on an overnight train from Beijing to Changchun in the frigid plains of his native Jilin province, where northeastern China abuts North Korea and its Hong Kong-owned border casino.
The capture of Cai, 43, was hailed in Beijing as a spectacular success for the Communist Party's latest campaign, a drive to eliminate big-time gambling.
The party leadership said it decided to crack down after Cai's activities became public. But for some time, senior officials worried that China's ancient vice was flourishing with new vigor, as more people got rich and temptations for official corruption trickled down the bureaucracy in the transformation to a market economy.
Tales of wealthy Chinese gambling away millions in Las Vegas have multiplied over the last decade. Estimates of the amount of losses abroad range from $2.4 billion to more than $73 billion a year if the tally includes the casinos of Macau, a former Portuguese colony now under Chinese sovereignty.
The recent concern in Beijing, however, was that ever-lower ranks of party and government officials had been seen heading to casinos along the border. This raised fears that more officials, up and down the hierarchy, were using crooked money to play, so much so that bilingual wags began calling them "ganbu-lers," a pun on the Chinese word for party cadre.
President Hu Jintao has repeatedly warned that fighting such corruption, along with the perception that officials are corrupt, is one of the Communist Party's most important tasks. And so the party, which banished organized gambling along with prostitution and opium when it took over in 1949, vowed to wipe out illegal betting again in the first half of 2005.
The Public Security Ministry announced that it had investigated 2,000 cases involving illegal gambling since the beginning of the year and detained 4,000 people. To increase the pressure, officials announced, 13 inspection teams were sent to five provinces notorious for high-stakes gambling, including two border areas.
Party or government officials caught gambling with public funds or using their influence to protect gaming operations were punished in 21 of the cases, the ministry said. Another 50,000 people were identified as players in various forms of illegal gambling but were not arrested, Wu Mingshan, deputy director of the ministry's management department, told reporters in Beijing.
Perhaps the most significant series of arrests came just as the campaign started, when an online gambling organization was broken up, leading to the arrests of 33 people, including 10 government officials, the official media reported. According to the reports, which cited police sources, a pair of agencies registered in Taiwan used the Internet to organize betting across China on soccer matches, posting odds and turning over $1.6 billion a month.
The crackdown, with its swift succession of arrest announcements, prompted Deputy Public Security Minister Bu Jingfu to reassure citizens on the eve of Chinese New Year celebrations that police would not disturb friendly games of poker or mah-jongg. "The whip that is used to beat wolves should not be used to beat sheep," he told reporters.
As instituted by the Communist Party upon taking power, Chinese law imposes fines and up to three years' imprisonment for people caught organizing gambling with the aim of making a profit, making a living by gambling or opening a casino.
The Communists were not the first Chinese leaders to try to stamp out gambling. Guo Shuanglin, a history professor at Peoples University who has researched the issue, said Chinese have been avid gamblers since time immemorial, and their rulers just as avidly have tried to rein them in.