China tightens regulations on Macao’s casinos

Macao – The Chinese government is tightening regulations on the construction of new casinos in Macao, as well as restricting the movement of Chinese nationals to that area, fearing the booming casino industry may undermine Macao’s economy and social infrastructure.

A 48-year-old man who runs a restaurant in downtown Macao complained about the negative impact on his business caused by the buoyant casino industry.

„Even if I advertise a job opening, young people in Macao would rather work at casinos. The starting salary there is usually about 14,000 patacas [about 196 yen,000], double the amount we pay. I can’t do anything about it,“ he said. The „help wanted“ sign hanging in his restaurant reads, „No need to present your ID.“ The restaurateur has no option but to hire Chinese who entered Macao as tourists and remained illegally.

Since 2002–when the casino business in Macao opened up to foreign competitors–a succession of large-scale U.S. casinos, such as The Sands, Wynn and The Venetian, have set up shop in the area.

There are 29 casinos operating in Macao, and the tax revenue generated by the establishments accounts for 70 percent of the Macao government’s entire earnings.

Chinese nationals are a key factor in Macao’s annual economic growth of more than 20 percent.

Since 2003, when Beijing allowed personal travel to Macao, the number of Chinese visiting the area has increased dramatically. In 2007, about 15 million Chinese, accounting for about 56 percent of all tourists, visited Macao.

The expressions of joy and sorrow heard in Macao casinos are mostly uttered in Standard Mandarin–mainland China’s standard language.

According to a casino staffer, the gambling that takes place in VIP rooms can involve about 10 million Hong Kong dollars (about 140 million yen) per day, and most of the users of such rooms are Chinese.

In light of this, Macao Chief Executive Edmund Ho in late April announced a ban on the construction of new casinos by order of Chinese President Hu Jintao.

This unusual announcement highlighted Chinese government intervention in Macao, which operates under the one-country, two-system formula.

The Chinese government fears Macao’s economy, which is heavily dependent on income from the casinos, could undermine the social fabric of the local area.

With an increasing number of people keen to benefit from the high salaries associated with working in the casino industry, other industries are finding it difficult to hire new staff, while many students are dropping out of university to work in the casino business.

A senior Macao government official was found to have received about 800 million patacas (about 11.2 billion yen) in bribes related to the construction of a casino.

However, in the long-run, the casino industry itself is the main beneficiary of the boom in business.

Growth of 9 percent in the consumer price index was registered in the first quarter of 2008, leaving many members of the public frustrated.

Last year, antigovernment protesters clashed with police, while ordinary Macao residents are calling for Ho’s resignation.

Ahead of the 10th anniversary of Macao’s return to Chinese sovereignty in December next year, Beijing needs to demonstrate a stable Macao society as well as successful Chinese governance of the area to the international community–including Taiwan. The Chinese government’s recent intervention in Macao reflects this stance.

In addition to the flow of cash from Chinese customers to Macao’s casinos, senior officials of China’s local authorities are reportedly spending money at casinos that they gained via corrupt practices.

Under these circumstances, residents of the neighboring Guangdong Province are–as of this month–only allowed to visit Macao once a month.

However, Wu Guochang, a member of Macao’s legislature, said: „[China’s] interference with the one-country, two-system formula is a problem. It’s a result of economic management that depends on the casino business, and therefore, Ho bears a heavy responsibility.“