The expansion of gambling
From the year 2000 on, ideological underpinnings have melted like snow in the spring sun, and several indices revealed that the central government was laying the groundwork for an unprecedented expansion of games of chance and money. First, in 2002, encouraged by the Ministry of Finance, Peking University established the China Center for Lottery Studies, whose mission is to facilitate “a healthy development of the Chinese lottery and gaming industry” (China Center for Lottery Studies,2009). In addition, the business lobby very freely expressed its views on the benefits of the gambling market: “an important role in improving China’s fiscal and tax revenue, providing employment chances, stimulating consumption demand, speeding up the economic growth and advancing the development of sports and welfare undertakings” (Wu & Gan,2003). Finally, as elsewhere in the world when gambling is undergoing a period of expansion, the main argument used to justify the growth, other than the notion of contribution to “social well-being,” was the idea that it would eradicate illegal gambling. Various sources, such as the CCLS, suggested that the sums diverted from the Chinese economy to illegal gambling and overseas games via the Internet were nine to ten times those spent on state games. Repatriation of those fiscal losses therefore constituted the key to legitimizing gambling in China in recent years, more recently stimulated by the economic benefits generated by Macau (Bourrier,2007), which held out the possibility of a gold mine in the expansion of some games of chance and money in the People’s Republic. In 2005, to stake out its territory and eliminate competition, the government clarified article 303 of the criminal act on the offence of illegal gambling (particularly Internet gambling) (Xinhua News,2005). In the aftermath, the government proceeded with severe and largely publicized repression campaigns: 700 000 people detained for the offence of illegal gambling in the first half of 2005 alone (Coleman,2005). In 2008, Public Security uncovered 361 000 gambling enterprises, made 1.13 million arrests, dismantled 20 000 gambling networks, and confiscated 2.07 million yuans (People’s Daily online,2008).
The Chinese government thus followed the world trend to make gambling and particularly electronic gambling machines, whose returns are phenomenal, a strategy for contributing to if not rebuilding public finances. Electronic gambling machines (EGMs)– marketed in the high-frequency lottery category and called online lottery terminals () – are part of the Chinese landscape where they are more numerous than at Macau: 14 000 machines were distributed to 530 gaming halls in 2005 (Coleman & Mure,2007), while the Deutsche Bank predicted that the number could rapidly increase to 150 000 machines in 5000 halls (Coleman, op.cit.). In addition to those gambling outlets, the government announced 10 000 Keno gambling terminals, which offer a draw every five minutes. However, in 2008 “social incidents” led the government to temporarily halt the expansion of electronic gambling machines in China, as “some people were losing more money than they could afford” (ASGAM,2008). The campaign restarted after several measures were implemented: “Because of the addictive nature of this game, many players actually chased losses in hoping that they would win back money, some selling their housing for more money to buy lottery and some even committing suicide. Some significant adjustments were made in China since 2008, including but are not limited to the following: (a) some strong addictive and habit forming games had been terminated; (b) lottery spending had been limited to ¥200 per person per day; (c) payouts for all gambling types were increased from 50 to 65%b; (d) business hours were adjusted from 10:00 a.m. to 22:00 p.m. every day; (e) VIP room was cancelled, shelters discarded, and monitoring video camera installed; and (f) some misleading promotions, such as posters, about winning the game were prohibited” (Li, Zhang, & Mao,2011).
This government intervention, which was minimally documented, had all the appearances of a new awareness of the dangers intrinsic to electronic gambling machines and a will to govern with precaution. But gambling development since 2010 proves this interpretation wrong. According to Mr. Liao of the China Lotsynergy, the electronic gambling machine market has renewed its energy, and access to other forms of gambling is expected to increase. “The lottery in China is regarded as a means for the government to raise revenue to help the poor and needy, but the Ministry of Finance realised that the majority of participants in China’s lottery were poor, so effectively, the government was collecting from the poor to help the poor. In order to increase the proportion of more rich people participating in the China lottery, the government decided to approve more ‘aggressive’ lottery products including sports betting (…) There were two policies issued by the Ministry of Finance in October last year, allowing lottery products in China to be sold on the Internet and mobile phones” (ASGAM, op.cit.). What are the potential implications of this new “aggressive” marketing of games in China, particularly the marketing of electronic gambling machines?
It has been observed that everywhere EGMs are operated they generate significant gambling problems, putting the state in an ambiguous position of promoting games that make an increasing proportion of gamblers ill. From a public health perspective, gambling problems, which are clearly more remarkable among online and electronic gamblers, are determined by a complex interaction of structural characteristics specific to gambling (danger of gambling in itself), individual aspects specific to gamblers, and environmental aspects such as access to games, ease of payment, and the opportunity for drinking alcohol while gambling (Korn et al.,2003; Papineau,2009). This framework has numerous implications for prevention: knowing that the most dangerous games will exacerbate gambling problems (ex.: video lottery terminals vs. Bingo), prevention must aim to reduce danger or increase the harmlessness of the games being offered (Chevalier & Papineau,2007). It must also seek to reduce access to and the marketing of the most dangerous games because it has been clearly demonstrated that the easier it is to access games of chance and money, the more people there will be with problems (Australian Productivity Commission,1999; Abbott & Volberg,1994; Ladouceur,1996; Welte et al.,2004; Harrison Health Research,2006). Before testing this public health perspective on the Chinese context, it is important to understand specifically the elements related to the product, the individual, and the environment inherent in Chinese gambling.
The intrinsic danger of electronic gambling machines
Griffith and Wood (1999) conclude that among all forms of gambling electronic gambling machines are the most likely to be linked with gambling problems. The speed that problems develop with EGMs is greater than for other games (1.08 years vs. 3.58 years) (Breen & Zimmerman,2002). The data show that 68.5% of annual spending by Quebecers on video lottery terminals is made by 14% of those people who have a gambling problem with VLTs (Chevalier et al.,2004). Several studies confirm this state of affairs and report that pathological gamblers contribute on average 46% of video lottery terminal income – the proportions varying between 27% and 67% (Australian Productivity Commission1999); Azmier & Smith,1998; Nova Scotia Department of Health,1998; Volberg, Gerstein, Christiansen, & Baldridge,2001; Doiron, Rowling,1999; Smith, & Wynne,2002).
The literature attributes this situation to two main factors: the technical characteristics intrinsic to the machines and their temporal, geographic, symbolic, economic, and legal accessibility (Leblond,2004; Dowling, Smith & Thomas,2005; Wood et al.,2004; Griffiths,1993; Chevalier & Papineau,2004; Abbott,2006). One of the main characteristics of electronic gambling machines is to make players believe they are about to win or that their chances of winning are greater than in reality. To do this, the symbols’ probability of occurrence are not respected but rather weighted by the manufacturer in such a way as to generate “near misses” or numerous small gains that keep the gambler tied to the game (Falkner & Horbay,2006, Dixon et al.,2010;2011). According to Skinner’s (1953) principle of intermittent positive reinforcement, the addition of a stimulus as the consequence of an action will increase the probability of the action being repeated. The chance to play continuously and repetitively and the intermittent reinforcements from small gains stimulate dopamine and noradrenalin, two known anti-depressants. Gamblers may develop an addiction to these neurophysiologic states (Sader,2005; Anderson & Brown,1984; Dixon et al.,2011).
Other EGM pathogenic elements are identified (Griffiths,1993; Wood et al.,2004; Harrigan,2007; Harrigan & Dixon,2009, Dow-Schull,2012): They have short reward intervals of only a few seconds (in other words accelerated frequency of events), allowing neither reflection nor a return to reality. Each game is not costly in a deceiving way: they cost a few cents but each game lasts a few seconds only: since machines accept bills instead of change, the costs add up quickly. Machines that work with magnetic cards create a desensitization effect to money on the user. On another hand, those machines require no skill: some characteristics such as the possibility of manually stopping the game and the fact that card games (theoretically strategic games) are coupled with games of pure chance induce gamblers into thinking that they have control over the results and that the more they play the more they can increase their performance.
Elements of individual and cultural vulnerability
The Chinese are now exposed to these games, strategically adapted to their tastes and culture (ASGAM,2008). In the environment of the Macau casinos, the Chinese seem more inclined to play table games rather than electronic machines (Liu & Wan,2011). However, no academic research has yet evaluated the situation in the gambling halls of the People’s Republic. But various factors highlighted by the research suggest that the inner characteristics and the high level of accessibility of electronic gambling machines in China may lead to a rise of psychosocial problems.
According to several studies, the Chinese have certain individual and cultural determinants that could influence the trajectory of gambling problems, particularly in terms of beliefs (Ladouceur & Walker,1996; Hong & Chiu,1988; Zeng,2006; Ariyabuddhiphongs & Phengphol,2008):
For the Chinese population, the ban on gambling prior to the period of reform and openness reinforced misconceptions about the chances of winning and the general functioning of state lotteries (Ozorio & Ka-Chio Fong,2004). For example, video lottery terminals lead to negative gain over the long term because the advantage is necessarily for the “house” (the operator). The experience of majiang or poker played as a family – during which all monies gambled are redistributed among the players – did not prepare gamblers for the notion of long-term losses that are ensured by state-owned video lottery terminals.
Traditionally, the Chinese have not perceived lotteries as a hard form of betting () (Sin,1997). Meanwhile, electronic gambling machines are marketed in China as “online lotteries” () – a marketing bias likely to minimize the dangers of addiction to these games.
From the start, the Chinese have a tendency to prefer games based on numbers or cards (roulette, black jack, poker): they attribute a divine power to numbers drawn randomly or attribute an influence to themselves on game results when they choose the numbers, which constitutes a hook factor for the game (Papineau,2005; Ohtsuka & Chan,2010).
The propensity of Chinese gamblers to develop strategies and assume regularity in games of pure chance has been demonstrated with the fantan, a popular game in the south of China, particularly during the Republic: “In particular, it was observed that gamblers “narratize” the game by considering successive draws not as independent, as mathematical laws of probability show, but rather as a sequence in which the combinations make sense. For this reason, the house of fantan provides for clients upon their arrival a history of the draws that took place in the preceding hours. There is indeed a whole group of strategies (tanlu) associated with very precise terminology on how to choose the entries for betting in several consecutive games” Paules,2007, – in translation. See alsoPaules 2010). This type of erroneous belief regarding the expectation of winning, the illusion of control, and the principle of independence among events is common among VLT gamblers (Gaboury & Ladouceur,1989). If the results of electronic gambling machines are based entirely on chance, they are designed and programmed on the one hand to give the impression of skill and on the other to generate these erroneous beliefs.
Studies focusing on the psychological aspects of making decisions in China demonstrate characteristics that could contribute to an explanation for the propensity for gambling and the greater prevalence of problem gamblers among Asian people. Three studies, in particular, demonstrate that in situations of investment and games the Chinese take more risks and show less probabilistic thinking, in an effort to reach material comfort more quickly (Vong,2007; Lau & Ranyard,2005). They also show an external locus of control – a tendency to attribute important life events to external causes: “The feeling that major reward allocation decisions are left in the hands of other powerful persons is frustrating and more likely to trigger the motivation to regain illusory control experienced in gambling” (Hong & Chiu,1988)c. Therefore, through this interpretation, gambling enables a sense of liberating interaction, if not influence, regarding events and destiny. This propensity is perhaps linked to some degree to the traditional Chinese “fatalistic” thinking (Papineau,2005), but could have a significant influence to the Chinese players’ relation with the EGM.