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China's Internet Giants' Lottery Apps Linked to Spate of World Cup Suicides

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FIFA WORLD CUP 2014 IN BRAZIL
ASSOCIATED PRESS

A 24-year-old surnamed Zheng ferried his ailing father to a hospital 100 miles from home in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, the official Xinhua news agency reported on July 10. After paying the deposit for the hospital bed, he had $800 leftover -- not quite enough to pay for all his father's medicine. Then he had an idea. Using an app on his phone, he legally bought an $800 lotto ticket betting Brazil would defeat Germany. In the early morning hours of July 9, he watched Brazil lose 7-1 and swallowed all his father's pills. When he came to, he began crying, and reportedly told the officer who had found him unconscious near the hospital, "You should not have saved me, I don't deserve to live."

Ten Chinese bettors have not been as fortunate as the 24-year-old Zheng. The first man to commit suicide jumped from a building in Shanghai after the tournament's first match. Oscar's goal in the 91st minute had brought the score of the Brazil-Croatia game to 3, 1; he lost $48,000. Then on June 18, a woman surnamed Wang lit a pile of charcoal in a hotel bathroom in Haikou, Hainan. Her young child, left outside the door, found her dead sometime later. A suicide note revealed she had borrowed and lost more than $16,000. The list continues. 26-year-old Little Xu was the tenth World Cup suicide. On July 5, he jumped and was found dead on the fourth floor terrace of his apartment tower. He was reported to have lost $69,000 betting on World Cup matches.

The spate of World Cup suicides coincides with the advent of newly legal online gambling in China. In October of 2012, the Ministry of Finance awarded the first online lottery sales licenses. Now China's Internet giants, Alibaba and Tencent, and a slew of other service providers, offer easy-to-use mobile and online applications that connect users to China's provincial Sports Lotteries. Alibaba's Taobao, China's third most visited website, uses its homepage to promote its online betting platform. Tencent's WeChat, with 355 million users, the majority in China, allows users to make in-app "lotto ticket" purchases.

It is now easier for Chinese to buy World Cup "lotto tickets" than cans of Coke. And it is a "lotto" in name only. Bettors can legally place the same World Cup bets that are made inside any Las Vegas sports book.

Vincent Chen, a 24-year-old IT engineer in Guangzhou, is one of China's newly established legion of online lotto ticket buyers. During the group stage of the World Cup, he bought a number of 2-team parlay lotto tickets through NYSE-listed 500.com's online platform. "During the last World Cup I was in college, I bet with my friends," he said. "This time I have been using 500.com to buy tickets." Thus far he has lost about $325 dollars, roughly a third of his monthly salary, and is still debating whether or not to bet on Germany in the final.

Users of China's Twitter-like Weibo have taken to joking "the roof is crowded" when matches come to an end. After finding a man lying naked in the middle of the Baomao freeway, on July 10, the Hunan Highway Patrol tweeted a picture and wrote, "More than a few soccer fans have taken to the roof, this man was the first to take to the freeway. Rationally watch soccer, no more using your life to make bets." The man told police he had lost all his family's money betting on soccer and wanted to die.

500.com incorporated the newly coined phrase into its marketing materials. "Rescue the Fans on the Roof. Free Score Guessing," ran the tagline for its new quarter-final promotion offering users free 4-team parlay lotto tickets.

Millions of Chinese have been drawn in by the online betting platforms' ease of use and extensive marketing campaigns. According to the China Daily, Taobao saw 4 million users bet on its online platform on the first day of the World Cup. Three days later that number grew to 6 million bettors. At a recent media event, 500.com CFO Zhengming Pan said lotto ticket sales had spiked 3 to 5 times when compared with prior weeks.

As of July 5, three weeks into the World Cup, China's National Sports Lottery Center calculated $1.5 billion in "lotto tickets" had been purchased. That figure is triple what was legally wagered on the entire 2010 World Cup. Li Jian, head of the online lotto consultancy Caitong, told Caixin that 70% of World Cup bets had been placed through online channels.

While online betting on World Cup matches has resulted in enormous profits for the gambling platforms, and a windfall for the provincial sports lotteries, it has taken a toll on Chinese society. Come the end of the World Cup here on Monday morning local time, Chinese officials may be rethinking the societal costs of legal online betting.

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List of Suicides:

On June 13, a man in Shanghai jumped to his death after he was reported to have lost $48,000 betting on the Brazil - Croatia match. He had wagered the final score would be 2 - 1. Oscar's goal in the 91st minute brought the score to 3 - 1.

On June 18, a woman surnamed Wang checked into a hotel room in Haikou, Hainan, shut herself in the bathroom and lit a pile of charcoal. Her child, left outside the door, found the mother dead sometime later. A suicide note detailed the more than $16,000 she had borrowed and lost betting on World Cup matches.

On June 19, Liu Jialin, a renowned 30-year-old chef in Hong Kong, was found dead beside a pile of spent charcoal in his locked bedroom. He was reported to have bet consecutively on Spain as the team lost to the Netherlands and then Chile.

On June 22, a sophomore at Guangzhou University surnamed Lin, jumped to his death from a building in the city's university district. He was rumored to have lost more than $3,000 betting on the World Cup.

On June 23, Yu Chi-hung, a 48-year-old wine sales manager in Hong Kong, was found dead in his wine shop's bathroom beside a bottle of wine, pills and burned charcoal. He left a note that read, "The pressures in life are heavy" and was known to be an avid gambler.

On June 24, 24-year-old Li Zhihao, jumped from the fifth floor of his office building in Hong Kong after friends refused to lend him more money for World Cup betting.

Also on June 24, a security guard surnamed Li, who worked at the Lianjiang People's Hospital in Lianjiang, Guangdong jumped to his death from the top of the hospital building. He was reported to have had an argument with his family over his sports betting debt then gone to work.

On June 25, a 26-year-old man, surnamed Ding, jumped from the sixth story of a building under construction in Quanzhou, Fujian. He was rumored to have lost over $48,000 betting on soccer matches and a suicide note on his iPad admitted to having recently bet on the soccer matches.

On July 5, a 25-year-old man in Xian, Shaanxi got in a physical altercation with his bride of two months after she lost money betting on soccer matches. He then fled to his car where he slashed himself with a razor blade. Still alive, he shut the car doors, turned on the air conditioning and used a lighter to start a fire.

Also on July 5, 26-year-old Little Xu was found dead on the fourth floor terrace of his apartment building in Ruian, Zhejiang. Earlier in the morning, he had paid a $69,000 World Cup gambling wager and argued with his mother over his gambling habit.