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The Great Firewall of China

by Jennifer Mason |  Published: Apr 01, 2010


My little brother, this month returning from several years living in small-city (population less than 2 million) China, leaped straight from the 14-hour flight onto his laptop, and fired up online poker with an ease to which he was not accustomed.

Avoiding the hassles of proxy servers which apparently only connect to gambling or gaming-related sites one in six times, or trying to get a game via .net sites, he was delighted to spend a high proportion of his time on UK soil on accessible virtual felt.

He mentioned something interesting while enjoying a spot of low-stakes full-ring cash, after a min-stacked player did what they do best, namely double through with pocket kings and immediately leave.

“I bet I can guess where this guy’s from,” he said, “It’s probably China.” In fact a quick search for this shortstacker, who did indeed list his location as the PRC, found him at several other tables at $0.15/$0.25 and $0.25/$0.50 level, along with about 15-20 others. “They’ve already started, and it’s 8:30 in the morning over there,” he said, “And they’ll be there all day, and I mean all day.”

Zhu Hai, Yi Chun, Beijing, Huazhou, Shanghai, and Hong Kong were usually to be found as the listed players’ home cities after a cursory mouse-wave over their names, which poses a couple of interesting questions.
Shanghai China
The only area sanctioned (or not restricted) for gaming is currently Macau, the ex-Portuguese colony island. It is, incidentally, soon to be connected to Hong Kong by a very large bridge which will make transfer from mainland China to the “Monte Carlo of the Orient” take around an hour. With access to gambling growing easier in China, these hometowns, apparently providing new poker players to the online melting pot, are however most definitely not on the gambling-OK list.

Nor is online gambling legal anywhere in the country. So do these few poker players appearing now herald a coming relaxation of legislation online to mirror that which appears to be slowly happening in the real world?

There are over 300 million Internet users currently active in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which makes it the largest online user base in the world. No corner of the country is free from Internet cafes crammed with people (mainly young and male) playing online massive multi-player online role-playing games. QQ, China’s all-purpose messaging software, already hosts a plethora of online games, from the ubiquitous mah-jong to Texas hold’em (for points, not money).

The framework and liquidity exists for a home-grown platform to take advantage of the Chinese people’s national fascination with gambling, but as it stands only the determined and computer-savvy get to try online poker for real, and only at a couple of US-friendly sites. Live gambling happens, officially, only in Macau or via the Chinese national lottery, which no longer has an online arm after lottery scam sites spiralled out of control.

It happens unofficially all over the place. China is credited with bringing Keno to the world during the Han dynasty, and exports a host of gamblers, including a large number of high rollers, to places like Las Vegas, where the visa requirements are apparently less of a hassle than those for Macau in some cases.

The government isn’t as bothered with the innumerable back-room mah-jong games between acquaintances (where cards take the place of gaming tokens and stakes run from pennies to fortunes) as with venues open to the public, and external online companies. The latter are pretty efficiently filtered out of the Chinese web (along with YouTube and Facebook); although you can search for any of them, clicking through doesn’t happen.

Last year, Reuters reported that the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) was prohibiting investment by foreigners in the online gaming industry (estimated at around $3 billion a year) although co-development of online games is still allowed to some extent.

This isn’t poker or casino-related, but aimed at restricting foreign interest in the huge multi-player and interactive gaming culture which has taken China by storm. A large proportion of these types of gamers are young and with low income, which throws up a potential societal problem with the relaxation of online gambling.

In order to introduce a potentially even more addictive form of online game play, regulations and support infrastructure need to be in place for these players. Quite a few scandals came out of World of Warcraft and similar over the last four years, including a murder (over the theft of a virtual sword) and the accidental death of a young man consigned to a mental institution by his parents for addiction to online gaming. When China develops a country-wide fascination, it is really on a spectacular scale, and dealing with the problems thrown up by un- or poorly-regulated online casinos would be a colossal task.

So far there are no signs of this regulation in development, and round the corner it definitely isn’t. The fact that the Chinese government does respond relatively quickly to fast-growing trends these days with regulation (and restriction) does suggest that if and when the PRC is ready to legalise online poker, it will have learned from its mistakes over the online lottery.

China will be ready if it decides to tap into a huge potential revenue source as the currently illegal live gamblers and the more liquid among online gamers move into a regulated virtual arena in which poker could easily become the next boom trend, the effects of which would be felt online the world over. Spade Suit

Jen Mason is a part of She is responsible for its live tournament coverage in the UK and abroad.