Less sin, more Shrek in Macau as China takes aim in corruption fight

Less sin, more Shrek in Macau as China takes aim in corruption fight

MACAU - The media scrum surrounding the politically connected chairman of a Chinese financial services company was interested in one particular unpaid loan.

The amount - US$1.3 million (S$1.62 million) - was nothing extraordinary. But the story behind it was. Xie Xiaoqing, chairman of Rongzhong Group, was sued in January for failing to repay the money to Sands China Ltd, US billionaire Sheldon Adelson's Macau gambling unit.

Xie has said he wasn't gambling and the money was for a friend. A spokesman for his company said Xie was not available to comment.

For many years, politically linked tycoons and government officials were frequently spotted betting millions in the southern Chinese city's lavish VIP rooms. But their numbers have dwindled because of an anti-corruption campaign led by China's new leader Xi Jinping.

Just a few years ago, that might have devastated Macau, which typically generated 70 per cent of its revenues from high rollers including wealthy government officials. In the third quarter those big whales accounted for just 65 per cent, according to government data, the lowest share since 2006.

Yet annual revenues are on a pace to rise 16 per cent to US$44 billion - seven times what Las Vegas took in last year - and October's numbers smashed analysts' forecasts, jumping 32 per cent to a record US$4.6 billion.

Middle-class mass-market gamblers have taken up the slack at just the right moment, and some of those government officials are still finding their way in, albeit more quietly.

"It is much stricter with the leadership change," said Li, a Macau junket operator who helps organise high rollers' travel and hotel arrangements and asked to be identified only by his surname. "They (officials) keep a low profile and stay in service apartments arranged by other people" instead of opulent casino suites, complete with massage rooms and karaoke parlours, that they once preferred.

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