Tea Leaf Nation

China's Multibillion-Dollar Pastime

World Cup fever has led to a lucrative sports betting market there, with occasionally deadly outcomes.

Bettors beware. A June 20 newspaper report from Haikou, the capital of Hainan island -- sometimes called China's Hawaii for its palm-studded beach hotels -- reported the story of a local 32-year-old mother who lost more than $16,000* betting on the FIFA World Cup, approximately four times the annual salary in Hainan. Despairing over the debt, which she could not repay, the woman, identified only by her surname Wang, checked into a hotel with her three-year-old child and penned a suicide note explaining that she couldn't face her family after what she'd done. The Haikou Evening Post wrote that she shut herself in the bathroom, set up a small clay stove, lit a pile of charcoal, and waited. She soon died of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the report, although the child was unharmed.

Police in the Chinese metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai are no doubt thinking of stories like this as they post warnings on social media imploring people to stay away from World Cup gambling. Despite China's notoriously disappointing team failing again to win entry into the tournament, and notwithstanding the fact that live matches air at midnight, 3 a.m., and 6 a.m. China time, that hasn't stopped Cup fever from sweeping a nation that loves its soccer. The New York Times reports that during the last World Cup in 2010, 17.5 million Chinese watched every match, more than any other country. Unfortunately, many Chinese love to gamble just as much as they adore soccer. The two are a potentially dangerous mix.

On June 19, Public Security Bureau officials from the Shanghai neighborhood of Jiading tried to drive their message home with a slideshow of staged selfies that showed a man's hand resting on the steering wheel of a Cadillac, then several progressively cheaper brands, including a Volvo, then the wheel of a tractor, then a rusty motorbike parked amidst alleyway rubbish. The final image showed the tips of two sneakers, perched on the ledge of a high building, the protagonist ostensibly poised to jump. The accompanying message: Soccer should be fun, but for those who make it their living, "the World Cup can turn into a world of sorrow." A Beijing police public service announcement, posted June 21 on Weibo, was less creative but echoed the same message. Don't go sleepless and don't pick fights, it read, but, most importantly, don't fall into the trap of gambling. "It won't make you rich, but it can certainly change your life."

Official warnings like these obscure the fact that Chinese authorities have taken an increasingly schizophrenic view of sports gambling. While the government cracks down on gambling dens and illegal online betting parlors, it also runs an official sports lottery that gives 22 percent of payouts to social causes such as sports education and welfare. Sports lottery tickets are sold at grocery stores and newspaper stands around the country and are increasingly available online and via mobile devices. During the last World Cup, China spent just $1 on legal lotteries for every $10 its citizens spent on illegal gambling, prompting calls from experts and the public for the government to legalize more varieties of gambling. The Ministry of Finance authorized online lottery sales in 2010 and licensed sites to sell sports lottery tickets in 2012. That helped spur Chinese punters to spend more than $21 billion on official sports lotteries in 2013, a 20 percent increase from the year before, the government-run China Daily reported

Reform of legal lottery sales has brought more money into Chinese government coffers, but illegal betting, which offers better odds, continues to be rampant. CalvinAyre.com claims China's illegal sports betting market is worth around $97 billion a year.

In a bid to poach some of that black market enthusiasm and recruit new bettors, licensed Chinese lottery providers shifted their marketing into overdrive ahead of this year's World Cup. Shenzhen-based and U.S.-listed sports lottery site 500.com offered $16 million to anyone who could predict the outcomes of all 63 World Cup matches.

The effort appears to be paying off. CalvinAyre.com, which tracks the online gambling industry, reported June 15 that the first day of the 2014 World Cup brought in five times the legal sports lottery sales recorded for the first day of the last World Cup in 2010. According to state-run China Daily, popular Chinese retail website Taobao.com reported more than 4 million bets via their online platform on opening day of the World Cup, and 6 million bettors by the third day. Microblogging site Weibo bristled with posts about World Cup wagers, with some liveblogging their bets. One sneaker wholesaler included screenshots of the wagers he made using Taobao's lottery app on his mobile phone. When he lost $320 betting against the Netherlands in their match with Australia, he posted six sobbing emoticons (but added he was still up overall). Others newbies were reeling harder from their losses and forswearing the practice. One user from southern Guangxi province wrote on June 21, "I've lived this long and never seriously gambled; I don't even play online card games." But this time, she wrote that she had chosen to bet, ultimately losing all of the money on her bank card. "It's a profound lesson: gambling is a killer."

*Correction, Jun. 24, 2014: This article originally misstated the amount the woman surname Wang lost gambling. It was approximately $16,000, not $1,600. (Return to reading.


Tea Leaf Nation

The President that China Never Had

Netizens are using a Korean film about late president Roh Moo-hyun as a subtle form of protest.

An activist lawyer heroically risks everything for his beliefs. Although he fails, his brave stand against authoritarianism wins him lasting admiration and changes the fate of his East Asian nation forever. The plot may sound seditious in mainland China, a country known for treating its activist lawyers shabbily. But it's actually the story of Roh Moo-hyun, former rights lawyer and president of South Korea, who committed suicide in May 2009. A Korean movie about Roh called The Attorney has not only topped the Korean box office shortly after opening December 2013 (and went on to become one of the most popular movies in the country's history) but has found a sympathetic audience among Chinese not quite ready to give up the ghost of idealism.

It has been a rough year for supporters of Chinese rights lawyers. Most notably, on Jan. 22 Beijing authorities sentenced lawyer Xu Zhiyong to four years in prison for "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public space." On June 13, after detaining law firm partner and noted defense lawyer Pu Zhiqiang for weeks, Beijing announced Pu's formal arrest on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" and "illegally obtaining the personal information of citizens." Xu's putative crime was organizing to advocate for educational quality and the disclosure of officials' personal assets, while Pu was attending a seminar to discuss the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in central Beijing.

The Attorney -- which has not been screened in mainland theaters but is available on video sites there, where censorship is lighter -- says nothing about Chinese power politics. Its plot is based on the so-called Burim Case. It occurred during the rule of Korean military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, and refers to 22 university students who were arrested and then, after being tortured, tried for forming a seditious book club. Roh left his cushy law job to defend the students during their 1981 trial. Roh lost that case, but it provided a launching pad for his political career beginning in 1988, culminating with a five-year stint as president of South Korea.

It's hard not to see parallels between Roh -- who passed the Korean bar in 1975 while studying in a dirt hut he built with his own hands -- and China's 21st century defense lawyers, a tightly-knit group of self-styled "diehards" known for their pride and seeming fearlessness in the face of official retaliation. On China's censored web, the movie appeals in part because issues like democracy and activism in Korean history have strong parallels to China but are safer to discuss.

Starting on March 2014, users of Douban, a movie and literature review site popular among young Chinese intellectuals, began discussing the film in earnest, many honing in on issues of democracy and activism and taking implicit jabs at Chinese authorities. One user called the erstwhile Korean regime's tactics "child's play" compared to the "party that shall not be named," i.e., the ruling Communist Party. The user noted Korean authorities, even under military rule, "allowed arguments in court, the defendant had his own lawyer, and foreign media were allowed to report from inside the courtroom." (Chinese authorities have not been so forthcoming -- at Xu's January trial, journalists were manhandled outside the courtroom and Xu was not permitted to call a single witness.)

Given this backdrop, it's not entirely surprising that many Douban commenters asserted the quality of The Attorney didn't matter, although the site provides tools to rate films. One was simply impressed "that Koreans can shoot this film and watch it without being stymied by a review process or censorship," or "an invisible hand choking you." Chinese filmmakers, by contrast, need to find "the courage to paint on a larger canvass," even in the face of official censorship.

At least one actor appears to agree. On May 6 -- just a day after Pu was detained -- The Attorney received mainstream cred in China when actress Zhang Ziyi, famous for her martial arts movies (and not for her social activism), took to Weibo, China's massive microblogging platform, to praise the film. She wrote to her 20 million-plus followers that the tale of "a lawyer who seeks democracy, rule of law, and justice, and is willing to fight for reason and truth" is "deeply admirable." That comment was shared over 16,000 times, high even for Zhang's account.

In response, a well known (pseudonymous) liberal Weibo user who calls himself "pretending to be in New York" wrote that the movie brought audiences in Korea to tears because it "touched historical wounds." By contrast, particularly in the month leading up to the Tiananmen anniversary, Chinese authorities were careful to ban virtually all grassroots discussion of the incident. This explains why one commenter wrote, "only Koreans dare to shoot a film like this." But the parallels were too hard to ignore: as another Weibo user wrote, "It seems that every nation's path towards democracy, rule of law, fairness, and justice is full of stumbling blocks and thorny impediments." The solution: "love and hope, and even more than that, courage and determination."

Commentary on the movie continues on Weibo. On June 19, one user opined that Roh sacrificed so that the country's children would "not have to live in an absurd era." It was a principle the user said she would remember, "even if the soil under my feet hasn't changed when I am old." Another wrote on June 20 that the film formed a "gigantic, farcical contrast" with reality. (The user claims to be from Yantai, one of the closest major Chinese cities to the Korean capital of Seoul). But even netizens keen to the film's somewhat heterodox implications in a Chinese context stopped short of calling for change. "Chinese living standards need to rise by a factor of three before our middle class can make revolution," one Douban author argued. "It's not time."

HT/Susan Jakes and "TK"

Image: Fair Use