Chinese gambling is an industry estimated to produce almost $4 billion annually, an impressive turnover in a country where gambling is technically illegal, apart from a sanctioned state lottery. But it wasn't always this way – in fact, China is the origin of some of the most widespread forms of gambling worldwide.
The game of Keno was born in China during the Han dynasty, and was used to generate government funds that were spent on expanding the military and building the Great Wall. It was imported to America by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, and was commonly known as the Chinese lottery. You can find Keno at most land-based casinos today, and nearly every country now has a National Lottery based on Keno.
China also gave us Pai Gow, an ancient form of gambling using dominoes that became a global sensation when it was modernised and introduced to Western casinos in the late 1980s. And of course, there's Mah Jong, another tile based game that is enormously popular.
Under the current law, there is no legal gambling in China, either on or off-line. The only officially sanctioned form is a national lottery, but even that is not available to play over the Internet thanks to a rash of scam websites that appeared and ripped off the Chinese citizenry by selling them fake lottery tickets.
However, this is not entirely true - the Chinese government realises that people like to gamble, and so it turns a blind eye to the burgeoning casino industry in Macau. Like Las Vegas in America, if Chinese citizens want a full casino experience, they have to jump on a plane and fly to where it is legal.
And while China does not actively engage in legislating the Macau industry, it does make it harder and harder for Chinese citizens to obtain visas for Macau. Looking at their enforcement pattern as a whole, China seems less concerned with preventing gambling than with making sure that it isn't run for profit.
For example, in 2005 during a crackdown on backstreet casinos, the government of China issued a statement reassuring the general population that they were not targeting “friendly” games played in people's homes and that this type of traditional play could continue with their blessing. The crime is simply running an unlicensed venue that is open to the public.
These indicators tend to imply that gambling is socially acceptable in China, and that China's enforcement policy extends only to unsanctioned casino operators, not to the citizens actually playing. Recently there have been signs that change is imminent, and that we may soon see the birth of Chinese legislation that governs online casinos in China.
Ultimately the reasons come down to money. The last decade has seen an unprecedented level of economic development in China, such that there are now far more wealthy Chinese then ever before - and these people are clearly gambling, whether they have to travel to Macau or beyond.
Regulating the industry would allow the Chinese government to keep a larger portion of that growth capital inside China through licensing fees and through taxation. In the meantime, however, Chinese gambling fans continue to break the law whenever they visit an online casino.