Jackpot chasers steal millions in cash, only to spend them on tickets
Two employees at a Chinese bank dream of getting rich quick. The only two with the keys to the vault, they steal a few thousand dollars to see whether anyone notices. No one does. So they take more. In the course of a month, they walk away with $6.6 million.
Instead of running away with their mountains of cash, the two do something seemingly illogical.
They buy lottery tickets.
Since police arrested the pair this spring, details of the bizarre robbery at the Handan branch of the Agriculture Bank of China have shed light on the huge popularity of lottery games in a country that officially bans gambling but has little power to stop the addiction from spreading.
"They have what we call the gambler's fantasy," said Li Gang, an expert on the Chinese lottery industry at Shanghai Normal University. "The cost of living in China has gone sky-high. Everyone wants to get rich. What is the fastest path to wealth? These people believe it is lottery games."
Much has changed in China since Mao-era Communists prided themselves on their frugality and vows to serve the people. Money is the new opiate of the masses and drug of choice, too, for corrupt cadres.
Fearful of the threat to its power and legitimacy, the central government in Beijing for years has campaigned against illegal gambling, shuttering thousands of underground betting parlors.
But the lottery industry is not technically considered gambling in China, and proceeds are supposed to support worthy causes, such as children's welfare and Olympics-related projects. In reality, the industry is full of regulatory loopholes and lacks a reliable monitoring system that could prevent abuse.
Still, as a legal alternative to gambling, the lottery ticket is the new dream maker for legions of Chinese, including state employees whose one-time "iron rice bowl" jobs are no longer enough in today's money-obsessed society. The temptation to win is so great that some government workers with easy access to public funds have thought little of dipping into the life savings of unknowing depositors as though they were their own private piggy banks.
A 23-year-old bank teller, for instance, falsified deposit records in order to remove $2.8 million in 50 days last fall to support her fiancé's lottery addiction, state media reported. This year, the woman was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Embezzling public money to play underground lottery games is even more rampant. In one case in southern China, a cashier at a public hospital stole $140,000 in deposit money for inpatient care to support her lottery habit. She was sentenced last year to 14 years.
Experts say cases such as these only scratch the surface of a problem plaguing civil servants, from small bureaucrats to big bosses.
"We found out that in one county in Liaoning province, the entire leadership was gambling; they spent their official meetings discussing what numbers to bet on," said Wang Xuehong, head of the lottery research center at Peking University.
China's tightly controlled media rarely report on these official criminal activities, which makes the Handan heist all the more interesting because of the details that have been exposed.
Ties to officials
Probably most interesting is the fact that both robbers are sons of local officials in Hebei province, and both had reputations as model workers.
Mastermind Ren Xiaofeng, 34, the son of a teacher and local official, got his job at the bank through his father's connections. His life had been the object of envy because he had a cushy government job and twins, a boy and girl. In a country with a strict one-child policy, this fact alone is not unlike winning the lottery.
His partner in crime, Ma Xiangjing, 37, is also the son of a local cadre. He served some time in the military, and the experience helped him land a job as security guard at a small county bank. After two years of stellar performance, he was promoted to the city branch of the agriculture bank.
Mr. Ma and Mr. Ren had a knack for counting cash fast by hand. They stood out in interbank competitions, winning honors for their home branch and respect from their superiors. Making them the two designated holders of the keys to the bank's vault was considered a vote of confidence in their skill and character.
Then, at the urging of co-workers, Mr. Ren started playing lottery games. At first he was a cautious player who placed an occasional bet. Soon he was hooked and became obsessed about hitting the jackpot.