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China Steps Up Campaign Against Gambling

China is stepping up its campaign against gambling with the arrest of nearly 600 people allegedly involved in an underground Internet gambling network. The bust is the ruling Communist Party's latest effort to stamp out corruption.

China's Ministry of Security on Friday said police had arrested 597 people after they uncovered an online gambling network that spanned 22 provinces. Officials say a company from Taiwan was operating the ring.

Beijing newspapers have been reporting such arrests almost daily since the start, earlier this month, of a crackdown on gambling.

A group of men brave the winter cold on a Beijing sidewalk, playing a legal game of cards in which they usually bet no more than one dollar a round. They are following a centuries-old tradition of gambling in China.

One of the men says he has been playing card games on the street ever since he can remember.

Heavy gambling in China reached its peak in the 1930s, when Shanghai was known for having the largest gambling dens in the world. The practice was banned when the Communists seized power in 1949.

It has made a big return in recent years, with many Chinese now betting regularly on horse races and football matches. But officials see gambling as part of the growing problem of corruption in China.

Since coming to power in 2003, the government of President Hu Jintao identified corruption as the number one threat to the Communist Party and vowed to crack down.

Official media last year said word that new corruption investigations were taking place prompted a number of party cadres to commit suicide and hundreds of others to flee the country.

Anthony Cheung, a public administration professor at Hong Kong's City University, follows the issue closely and thinks the government has reason to be worried.

"The fact that there are so many suspected corrupt individuals leaving the country or even committing suicide, I think that is indicative of the extent of corruption in China," said Anthony Cheung. "Very often it's not just petty corruption, but corruption involving huge amounts of money. The problem has become almost endemic."

Many officials are believed to indulge in illegal gambling. A Beijing newspaper recently reported that about 50,000 Chinese cross into North Korea every year and bet millions of dollars on the tables at a Hong Kong-funded gambling resort in the city of Rajin-Sonbong.

The report said 30 percent of those patronizing the resort were Chinese officials. Officials this month said they were searching for a Jilin province official, who, they said fled after losing $423,000 in public funds at the North Korean casino.