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At Odds With Gambling, China Loves Its Lottery

Culture: Officially, gaming is illegal, but millions buy government tickets. Profits go to social programs.


BEIJING — Who wants to be a baiwanfuweng?

That's a Chinese mouthful for "millionaire," and the answer is plenty of China's 1.3 billion people, who are lining up to buy tickets in this country's biggest-ever nationwide lottery.

Never mind that gambling is still technically illegal here, one of the great moral evils that the Communists vowed to eradicate when they took power in 1949.

Now, ironically, it's the Communist regime itself that's putting on the lucky draw, creating a class of instant millionaires in what was supposed to be a classless society not long ago, before getting rich became so glorious.

Utopia is no longer the egalitarian world Marx envisioned but just a place to call home, in Lu Xiaorui's eyes.

"If I win, I'll build a big house for my family," said the 20-year-old, who earns less than $75 a month waiting tables.

She was among the first to buy a chance at claiming the jackpot of 1 million yuan, or about $120,000--a serious bonanza in a land where the annual per capita income is still well under $1,000. Nearly 15 million tickets were purchased within a week of going on sale Sept. 1. The first jackpot is to be paid out in early October.

Proceeds from the game--up to $1 billion, organizers hope--will go toward funding the government's cash-strapped social welfare programs. In China's case, that means taking care of its swelling population of laid-off workers, the disabled and retirees, many of whom face increasing hardship as inefficient state enterprises go belly up and cut off their pay and pensions.

As a moneymaker, the lottery is a gamble--literally--and an odd one on the face of it, seeing as the Beijing regime officially bans gaming.

But in a country where rules are words to dance around and laws mean what the authorities say they mean, not many are bothering to point out the contradiction between government policy and practice.

When asked directly, officials struggle to come up with a distinction between playing the lottery and gambling.

"First of all, this is a state monopoly," Li Shibin, a staffer at the lottery office, said in a somewhat puzzling reply that seemed to skirt the question. "Secondly, the purpose of the lottery is to help the old, the disabled and orphans, not for gambling."

Uh, OK. Is that his final answer?

Li paused, then tried once more. "The biggest difference," he said finally, "is that gambling is forbidden and the lottery is allowed."

True enough. But such approval is a recent phenomenon in the 51-year history of the People's Republic.

Gaming Once Seen as a Social Evil

In the first few decades of Communist rule, China's new leaders aggressively stamped out what they saw as exploitative carry-overs from feudal society or as bourgeois habits from the West. Corruption was rooted out, prostitution banned and religion condemned.

Gambling, too, got the ax, partly because of its association with the image of dissipated, opium-smoking socialites who bankrupted themselves in binge sessions of betting, card-dealing and mah-jongg-playing. One of China's most acclaimed movies of recent years, "To Live," starts with its main character gambling away his family property.

But after 20 years of economic and social loosening, all the previously verboten activities have come back with a vengeance--often with the collusion of the state. Now the officially atheistic government picks priests and lamas, corruption is rampant, and randy cadres help keep hookers in business.

In 1985, lotteries were still taboo. When China Central Television aired a lottery-type program as part of its annual Chinese New Year's Eve variety show, the network came in for official criticism for promoting gambling.

Just two years later, the government apparently had a change of heart and established a commission to set up lotteries to raise money for social programs, especially sports, education and housing.

Revenue has skyrocketed from about $2 million at first to $1.3 billion in 1998, to benefit victims of that year's devastating floods.

Lucky draws are now a fixture of the Chinese landscape, although earlier this year authorities put the kibosh on giving out as prizes consumer goods such as refrigerators and microwaves after too many proved defective and sparked widespread anger.

The Communist government figures that cold, hard cash is the best way to keep people interested and satisfied--hence its latest offering, with its first million-yuan purse to be awarded Oct. 6. Losing tickets remain valid for succeeding weekly draws through the end of the year.

With smaller prizes also up for grabs, the odds of winning something are about 1 in 6, the Beijing Morning Post reported, using suspiciously gambling-oriented terms.

"You can't deny that the lottery business has a gambling flavor," admitted Li Zhenhai, who helps market the new game, officially dubbed "China Charisma."

But, she said, "aren't stocks and securities just business with a gambling color? Everyone can see that stocks and securities are a bigger gamble than the lottery."

Playing the Markets Also Has Official OK

Like the lottery, playing the stock market--once considered a nasty capitalist habit--enjoys the blessing of the state in China's new society. Both activities received their official endorsements in the People's Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece.

Beijinger Ha Jun is a fervent supporter of the party line. He demonstrated that by buying 550 tickets, at about 25 cents a pop, the morning they went on sale and was pictured on the front page of the local paper gleefully showing off his purchases--worth nearly double the monthly wage of Lu Xiaorui, the waitress.

Li, the lottery marketer, said moderation must be the watchword.

"We never encourage ticket buyers to buy in bulk, by the box," she said. "Now that would be gambling."


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