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Tiny Chinese Enclave Remakes Gambling World

He added: "Macau is their country, not ours, and it's their system not ours, and it operates differently than ours. It's not better or worse, just different."

One contributing factor is China's capital controls, which restrict the amount of money that citizens take out of the country, including to Macau, which like Hong Kong, is a semi-autonomous region with its own financial system. Another is the lack of reliable credit risk information in China, which makes it hard for casinos to figure out whom they should lend to.

So-called junket agents provide an easy fix. They use their networks on the mainland to identify wealthy would-be gamblers, whisk them to Macau's tables, lend them money, then settle up when they get home.

Junket operators often assume management of a casino's private VIP room. Casinos provide the facilities, dealers and chips in return for a cut of the profits. Baccarat played in VIP rooms accounts for two-thirds of Macau's $38 billion in annual gambling revenue.

While many junket operators in Macau are law-abiding, some have documented ties to organized crime.

The enclave has seen a spate of killings and kidnappings associated with debt collection, including one grisly case last year in which two men were stabbed to death in their four-star hotel room, discovered by a friend who had come to lend them the money they needed.

Today, U.S. companies are tweaking their flagship Las Vegas casinos in Macau's image -- importing Asian pop sensations, Chinese delicacies and baccarat, now Nevada's biggest moneymaker. They've set up Macau-style VIP rooms that employ junket operators.

Asian visitors now account for 9 percent of tourists to Las Vegas, up from 2 percent in 2008. And the Strip is preparing to welcome its first Asian-owned casino: a multibillion-dollar Chinese-themed extravaganza called Resorts World.

One reason casino bosses are dreaming up ways to lure Macau customers to Las Vegas is that Nevada imposes one-fifth of China's 39 percent tax on winnings. "They can make a lot more money from a big gambler here," said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

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