Gambling is illegal in China, but that didn’t prevent Fan Zheng from betting tens of thousands of dollars online.
The 30-year-old store clerk from the island province of Hainan learned about the opportunity early last year from marketing agents who, Fan believes, contacted him because he played no-stakes online card games.
“They knew I was a potential gambler,” he said.
At first, the agents persuaded him to bet on card games. That added thrill and a chance of making money to something he was already doing for fun.
But the card games were slow, and Fan kept losing. The agents suggested that he try a game called Tencent Every-Minute-Lottery, which generates winning numbers based on the total users logged into a Chinese messaging app. As the name suggests, there is a new chance to win every minute.
Soon he was hooked. Sometimes he bet $1.50. Other times, he bet $10,000.
“The more I played, the bigger amounts I’d bet,” he said.
Operating safely out of reach of Chinese authorities, the lottery website and its agents are based hundreds of miles away in the Philippines.
The Southeast Asian nation is being transformed by a massive surge in online gambling companies catering to players in China, where rising incomes have given more people the means to wager.
The demand is expected to drive gambling revenue in the Philippines to $4.1 billion this year, up from just over $1 billion in 2016, according to the government.
Those figures also include traditional casinos, which have gotten their own boost from rising tourism from China.
Still, the portion that flows back to the Philippines to pay salaries, rent, government bribes and other costs has given the economy a significant boost. The annual licensing fees — $140 million last year, more than 11 times the 2016 total — are now the third-largest source of government revenue behind taxes and customs.
The boom is most apparent here in the capital, where gambling companies and their employees have driven commercial and residential rents to record highs.
By some estimates, at least 100,000 people from mainland China have moved to Manila for jobs as gambling company marketing agents, tech support specialists and engineers — all to serve the Mandarin-speaking clientele.
“Everybody is after the Chinese customer because they’re the biggest market and they’re the biggest gamblers,” said Rosalind Wade, the Manila-based managing director of Asia Gaming Brief, a research and consulting firm.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who once railed against the industry as a vector for crime, recently called for its expansion.
“That gambling-gambling,” Duterte told supporters at a recent rally. “I cannot control it.”