Well, that was quick. Just 48 hours after news broke that a ‘casino bar’ at a resort in China’s Hainan province was running 50 ‘cashless’ gaming tables, local authorities have shut the operation down. On Tuesday, the Sanya Administration for Industry and Commerce ‘temporarily suspended’ operations at the Jesters’ gaming room in the Mangrove Tree Resort World in Sanya Bay. Sanya Culture and Sports Bureau deputy director Chen Guangfa told the South China Morning Post that authorities were investigating whether Jesters’ owners had “violated their operating regulations.”
The recently opened Jesters had been operating under a system in which players’ winnings were paid in ‘Mangrove Points,’ which could only be redeemed for goods and services at the resort itself. Chen said Mangrove Tree’s certificate allowed operations that were “entertainment in nature,” but the operators appear to have “gone beyond the scope of the regulations, so we closed it down.” A Mangrove Tree spokesperson claimed the casino bar had been “closed for maintenance” due to a wonky air conditioner. That may even be true in a symbolic sense, as we have no doubt certain Mangrove Tree principals are currently sweating like bastards.
A PR flack named Wang from the Antaeus Group, which is behind the Mangrove Tree development, told the Global Times that it was all a big misunderstanding. “There is no gambling here. We know that gambling is forbidden in China.” Wang claimed the bar had merely opted for a casino-style décor because it was popular with customers. But in the wake of the original Reuters report, Macquarie analysts had issued a report saying Mangrove Tree was planning to add 400 gaming tables over the next 18 months. That’s a lot of decor.
Macau is the only Chinese jurisdiction in which casino gambling is permitted, but Antaeus chairman Zhang Baoquan told Reuters last week that the mainland government was “monitoring” Jesters as “a test.” Zhang’s comments echoed those made last May by Hoffman Ma, deputy chairman of Success Universe Group, who claimed a “casino license has actually been approved for Hainan.” Ma’s comment was denied at the time by Hainan People’s Congress chairman Wei Liu Cheng, who said the province was “not looking at opening casinos or other gambling activities such as horse racing.”
Perhaps. But in 2009, 56 members of the Hainan Provincial Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference had proposed lifting restrictions on gambling in order to combat underground operators and keep some of that money from leaving Hainan. One year later, the State Council released a document touting various methods of boosting tourism, including offering sports lotteries, instant lotteries and sports betting.
It remains to be seen how much Zhang’s impatience to launch casino gaming outside Macau has embarrassed the mainland authorities, and whether their response will be to punish Zhang by injecting formaldehyde into any nascent plans to relax gaming restrictions. Zhang’s boldness may also have inflicted collateral damage on Sanya Bay’s other resort operators. MGM Resorts International said it had no plans to launch “anything of this kind” at its own Sanya Bay resort. Caesars Entertainment, which wants an Asian casino presence like Honey Boo Boo wants lard for breakfast, is constructing its own resort in Hainan with a 2014 opening date. Has Zhang just doomed Caesars’ chances of getting their Asian game on?