The place had become the “Macau Laundry Service,” as U.S. diplomats put it in an internal cable in 2009. David Asher, who was a State Department senior adviser for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Bush administration, told me it had “gone from being out of a James Bond movie to being out of The Bourne Identity</span>.”
While the junket industry had many law-abiding members, it had been, for decades, susceptible to the involvement of organized crime. In China, organized crime groups known as “triads” grew out of nineteenth-century political societies; the term triad</span> is believed to have originated when three groups merged into a powerful organization. They became involved in loan-sharking and prostitution, and made their presence felt at Macau’s casinos, but in recent years triads had become more business-oriented. They set aside squabbles over drugs and petty crime in order to pursue new criminal opportunities associated with a more prosperous People’s Republic, including money laundering, financial fraud, and gambling. Gangsters were becoming “gray entrepreneurs,” as criminologists put it, and it was growing more difficult to distinguish between triads that had gone into business and businesses that were acting as triads. Men who were once known in the local papers by their nicknames, as reputed triad bosses, reinvented themselves as executives in the gaming industry.
Macau was proving to be especially attractive to corrupt Chinese officials. It played a recurring role in the downfall of Party cadres, who headed to Macau with public funds and returned empty-handed. There was the pair of Party officials named Zhang and Zhang, from Chongqing, who lost more than $12 million at the casinos in 2004. A former Party chief in Jiangsu lost $18 million. A bureaucrat from Chongqing stood out not for scale but for speed: he managed to lose a quarter of a million dollars in just forty-eight hours. So many officials were arrested for squandering public funds in Macau that, by 2009, scholars calculated how much the average official might lose at the gambling tables before getting caught: $3.3 million.