All bets are off as Chinese officials quash talk of casino in Hainan free trade zone

Office towers under construction in Hainan, China, on Jan 11, 2018. The Chinese government has unveiled plans to develop Hainan into a pilot free trade zone. PHOTO: REUTERS

HAIKOU, HAINAN - There are no plans to allow gambling or build a casino in the southern Chinese province of Hainan, officials said.

The Chinese government on Tuesday (Oct 16) unveiled plans to develop Hainan into a pilot free trade zone (FTZ), which aims to create a gateway for opening up towards the Pacific and the Indian oceans.

Spanning 35,400 sq km, the Hainan FTZ will be much bigger than the total area of the other 11 existing FTZs in the country, which are only 120 sq km each.

According to the approved plan, the Hainan FTZ will see a significant relaxation of market access for foreign firms in sectors ranging from agriculture to healthcare.

There are also plans to make the zone an international tourism and shopping hub, as well as offer services and support for the Belt and Road Initiative, China's ambitious plan to revive ancient trading routes on land and sea.

Refuting earlier media reports that there could be plans to build a casino on the island known for its tropical weather and sandy beaches, a local official said there was no such plan.

"No, there is no plan for a casino," Ms Kang Baiying, deputy director-general of Hainan's Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, told The Straits Times on Wednesday (Oct 17).

Her comments came after the province's leader was reported as saying that the government would not allow gambling or horse-racing on the island.

"Some online comments about opening casinos, allowing gambling and horse-racing, or copy from capitalism and adopt overall private ownership, are divorced from China's reality and (they are) resolutely not allowed," Hainan's community party chief Liu Cigui was quoted as saying by the Hainan Daily.

Bloomberg reported in February that China was considering allowing sports betting or a lottery in Hainan in a move that could open the door to casinos and make the province an alternative to Macau, currently the only place in China where casino gambling is permitted.

The announcement would come as no surprise to most observers.

"It's almost impossible for Beijing to allow the building of physical casinos... Casinos (are) against the overall ideology and the rules and laws of China," Mr Su Guojing, founder of the China Lottery Industry Salon and an industry veteran, told the South China Morning Post in May.

The Chinese government, however, has a slew of measures to boost growth for its southernmost province.

According to a notice released by the State Council, the Hainan FTZ would open up sectors including seed production, tourism, medical care, aviation, and new energy vehicle manufacturing, by aiming to "significantly relax the access to foreign capital".

The gross domestic product last year of Hainan province, slightly bigger than the size of Taiwan, was 446 billion yuan (S$89 billion).

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