China targets gambling hub of Macau in crackdown on graft

HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's fight against corruption has spread to the world's largest gambling hub, the former Portuguese colony of Macau, where seven people including government officials are being investigated for graft, including accepting bribes.

The developments are in stark contrast to last year, when no high-profile officials were questioned about bribery, according to the website of Macau's Commission Against Corruption. The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In just a couple of decades, Macau, across the Pearl estuary from Hong Kong, has transformed itself from a crime-ridden backwater, where triad gangs fought turf wars on the streets, to the world's top gambling centre, overtaking Las Vegas and attracting investors such as US casino tycoons Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson.

The most recent corruption case, announced on the website on Thursday, involved two officials from the transport bureau, who were detained on suspicion of accepting bribes totalling 16 million patacas (S$2.68 million) from three companies that managed car parking spaces.

Commissioner Against Corruption Cheong Weng Chon was sworn in in December during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping and has pledged to support the mainland in its mission to stamp out corruption.

Cheong in March said the bureau would "exert the best efforts to prevent Macau from turning into a transit point or destination for illicit money outflows and corrupt officials fleeing the country".

Since Xi became leader in March 2013, he has warned that corruption threatens the Communist Party's very survival. Macau returned to Chinese rule in 1999, two years after the former British colony of Hong Kong.

Other Macau cases have included the arrest of a chief prison officer on suspicion of receiving bribes in the form of abalone and ginseng as well as lavish accommodation in return for providing special treatment to an inmate.

Two officials in the marine and water bureau and two employees from the civil engineering laboratory are also under investigation, according to the commission's website.

Macau's public security bureau has also cracked down on prostitution, busting two organised syndicates in the past week, media said.

This follows the high-profile bust of a syndicate in January at SJM Holding's Hotel Lisboa where police detained executive Alan Ho, the nephew of former Macau kingpin Stanley Ho.

The crackdown comes at a time when gambling revenues are plummeting as high rollers stay away due to fears of being caught up in graft investigations. Revenues for April are expected to drop 40 percent in the 11th consecutive monthly fall.