... and in the People's Republic, bag your cement

Popularity of draw prompts instant experiment
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When officials at China's Social Welfare Lottery Committee realised just over a year ago that sales of lottery tickets had hit a plateau, they decided to open up China's wild west to the joys of the game. An "experiment" was held in Xinjiang province's Manas county, home to 120,000 nomads. It was something of a hit; within days, 1.1 million lottery tickets had been sold.

Buoyed with success, the officials aggressively started marketing bigger games across China, with higher-value prizes, ranging from bags of cement to washing machines. In a country where gambling is supposedly illegal, it did not take long to pay off. By the end of the year total sales had soared to 5.5bn yuan (pounds 450m), more than twice that for 1994. Officials readily admitted that, if only they could have printed more tickets, sales would have been much higher.

Next month will see the Chinese government's biggest experiment yet in the lottery business, with the launch of new scratchcard games in which Chinese punters buying the 2 yuan (14p) tickets will be able to win large cash prizes. At a secret location near Peking, a Sino-French-Malaysian joint venture company is printing millions of lottery cards for the "Constellation" and "Land Battle Chase" games, which will start selling in the run-up to Chinese New Year in mid-February.

Prizes worth up to 100,000 yuan (pounds 8,300) will be on offer, including apartments and cars, but an official at the lottery committee said there would also be a cash option. Cash prizes would be "more flexible", he said. "Some people do not like the articles, they already have them. They prefer cash."

In theory, China has strict anti-gambling laws. In practice, that does not always matter. At the Peking Racing Track, for instance, betting is officially described as "guessing" about which horse may win. Similarly, the government has overlooked any inconsistency in state lotteries. Under the government's regulations, 55 per cent of ticket revenues must be spent on prizes, 15 per cent goes on printing and distribution, and 30 per cent funds on welfare institutions, including old people's homes and mental asylums.

Chinese lottery tickets were simple cards with perforated windows, which tear back to reveal a symbol. The scratchcards will be far more sophisticated - and far more fraud-proof. The joint venture is 37 per cent owned by the French state lottery company, Francaise des Jeux, which has imported state-of-the-art machines to make the tickets.

Outside Peking's Landao department store the Chaoyang District Civil Affairs Social Welfare Bureau had two "campaigns" running this week, with an array of prizes on show to encourage ticket sales. For 2 yuan one had the chance of winning a motorcycle, Panasonic TV/hi-fi or microwave oven. One man, Mr Hu, bought five tickets to "try my luck" and won a monkey toy. "It is fun. Suppose I win a colour TV!" said another man from Hebei province.

The scratchcards will be launched in the south of China and, significantly, not in Peking, just in case anything goes awry.

The government is wary of sparking lottery mania. "They do not want to go too fast," said one expert. "They do not know what will be the impact on the economy, especially in the countryside." In some cases, peasants have sold their clothes to raise funds to buy tickets; some of the poorest provinces, such as Shaanxi and Guangxi, have been among the biggest ticket purchasers. The government also wants to keep strict control - in one province last autumn there was a riot when local cadres raised ticket prices without increasing prizes.