Happy serendipity. I have been trying to make sense of my superficial impressions of Macau and this morning, a former student pointed me to the article, Capital Flight of China’s Wealthy Gets Ready for Takeoff. Long story short — using credit card purchases to transfer Chinese savings into international accounts. If this loophole sounds suspiciously like the money laundering another friend attributed to Yongfengyuan, that’s probably because the same group of people are involved: China’s officials and/or those with business ties to the current administration.
What have I seen and overheard? Before I came, a Hong Kong friend explained to me that last year (2011), Macau’s GDP had exceeded estimates by over 300%. This unexpected windfall, he continued, resulted from opening Macau to Mainland gamblers and tourists. And indeed, much of Macau is under construction. However, looking closely, it seems that the construction is theme park casinos and attached luxury malls. To walk through or between casinos and the malls is be overwhelmed by namebrand accessibility — Prada, LV, Swaroski, Piaget, Armani, all within credit card reach.
Here’s the rub. What I saw when walking Macau has been the ever clearer demarkation between the casino-luxury mall complexes and everyday life as if by visiting a casino-luxury mall, one had visited Macau. In fact, the MGM takes this claim to its logical conclusion, building a reproduction of a Macau plaza in its lobby. Likewise, on the Cotai Strip, these complexes themselves are tourist destinations, conveniently located near a border-crossing checkpoint for Mainland visitors from Zhuhai. Indeed, outside of a few internationally renowned local landmarks (St. Paul’s and the Leal Sentado Plaza, for example), most historic sites and neighborhoods were pleasantly empty, even on the last weekend of Chinese New Year.
What I’m wondering about are gambling losses. On most streets, I also saw pawnshops, with neon signs glittering as brightly as the Casino facades. The stories I have neither heard nor seen are stories about how gambling destroys families, stories that I have heard frequently on Hong Kong television as part of anti-gambling public service announcements. In contrast, Shenzhen, which has daily ferries to Macau has been silent about the evils of gambling. That said, the SEZ’s anti-drug campaigns do continue.
And so I pack my bag and head for Hong Kong, I leave with three questions. One, what is the Party’s cut of the construction and wealth that’s being redistributed through the casino-luxury mall complexes? If there was no cut, this enterprise could not be funded because (1) Mainlanders could not get travel passes and (2) they couldn’t use their credit cards to make local purchases. Two, how and are the new casino-luxury malls helping Macau people? Or is this new influx of Mainland capital concomitant with the ongoing transfer and concentration of South China wealth into the hands of a lucky few? And three, what are the policies (if any) for dealing with Mainland gambling losses and gambling addictions? I know that casinos are designed to take money from players — that’s the point, but I don’t know how cross border bankruptcy is handled or if even recognized as a problem?
If you know the answer to any of these questions, please let me know. I’m especially interested in hearing from someone in Zhuhai about how the relationship between Zhuhai and Macau is presented and if fallout from gambling has been incorporated into public discourse.