China has initiated a massive crackdown against gambling by public officials. Analysts say gambling-linked corruption is a widespread problem that needs a comprehensive solution.
China's communist government banned gambling half a century ago. But with a new affluent class and the proliferation of casinos within easy reach - in North Korea, Macau, Vietnam and Burma - more and more Chinese are placing their bets.
The amount of money being gambled away is no pocket change. Chinese estimates say $75 billion leaves the country annually as gambling money. But more worrying for China is the extent in which public officials indulge in the habit. In January, authorities caught a fugitive mid-level official from the northwestern Jilin Province who allegedly gambled away $400,000 in public money in a North Korean casino.
Chinese officials are not highly paid. But in casinos outside China, some are seen flaunting decadent lifestyles and using elaborate schemes to get money out of the mainland for gambling purposes.
Politics Professor Joseph Cheng, at City University of Hong Kong, says the image of high-rolling public officials invites public anger.
"When you have cadres engaged in gambling activities, especially in casinos outside China, then this is a very serious political problem, because obviously, given the salary of the cadres, they cannot have such money except through corruption. And therefore, it certainly leads to a very bad image among officials in China," he said.
Corruption among public officials is a sensitive issue in China, where the majority of the population has yet to share in the country's rising wealth. The communist leadership has acknowledged social discontent is very much a result of the growing gap between the rich elite and poor peasants.
Gilles Guiheux, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, says the high-profile crackdown is aimed at keeping the people's confidence in the government.
"I think what is at stake, in the present fight by the government against gambling, is its image in front of the people. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao want to present a cleaner image of the state, of the party in front of the people," he said.
Since January, the government says it has identified 80,000 people suspected of gambling. It also says at least 80 casinos and gambling houses near China's borders have been closed down.
China plans to begin publicly prosecuting officials caught gambling with state money next month. Chinese media say Li Subiao, a former housing official in Hunan Province, has been charged with embezzling $14 million to gamble in Macau.
But some experts say the heavy-handed campaign will only have short-term effects. Mr. Guiheux says China needs to pay attention to institutional reforms, such as allowing a free press to expose the wrongdoing of public officials and establishing an independent judicial system to tackle such cases.
"There is so much that can be done against the law because of the lack of transparency," he explained. "So without political reforms, without more independence for the press, I think there is no way for the Chinese authorities to solve corruption and gambling issues."
But experts say the Communist Party is reluctant to take such far-reaching reforms because they could erode its grip on power at a time when it is engineering China's rise on the world stage. However, the crackdown is a much-needed short-term solution, analysts say, so that resentment and social unrest do not boil over in a way that could undermine China's stability.