How a Sino-Lao special economic zone hit the skids
May 26th 2011 | BOTEN, LAOS | from the print edition
AT HOME and abroad, China is a byword for fast-track development, where yesterday’s paddy field is tomorrow’s factory, highway or hotel. Less noticed is that such development can just as quickly go into reverse. Golden City, in Boten, just over the border from China in tiny Laos, is a case in point.
When a Hong Kong-registered company signed a 30-year, renewable lease with the Lao government in 2003 to set up a 1,640-hectare special economic zone built with mainland money and expertise, Golden City was touted as a futuristic hub for trade and tourism. The builders promptly went to work, and a cluster of pastel blocks rose amid the green hills of northern Laos. Thousands of Chinese tourists and entrepreneurs poured into the enclave, drawn largely by the forbidden pleasures and profits of gambling, which is illegal in China, except in Macau. Today the main casino, inside a three-star hotel, lies abandoned, its baize tables thick with dust.
The trouble started in December, when Chinese gamblers found that the operators refused to let them leave until they had coughed up for betting losses. Officials from Hubei province apparently negotiated the release of several “hostages”, but many more continued to be held against their will. Accounts in the Chinese media say that casino recruiters lured gamblers with offers of free travel and hotel rooms, only to be kept captive and beaten when their credit ran out. Lao villagers swap grisly tales of corpses dumped in the river.
Chinese authorities have since put the boot into Boten. In March the foreign ministry warned citizens not to gamble in Laos and accused Golden City of cheating its cross-border customers. It said it had demanded that Laos close down the casino. Last month the casino duly shut, and the smaller gaming halls have since gone too. The 232-room hotel, which is almost empty, will be next.