MACAU (Reuters) — Growing numbers of
Chinese are using the country's state-backed bankcards to illegally
spirit billions of dollars abroad, a Reuters examination has found.
This underground money is flowing across the border into the
gambling hub of Macau, a former Portuguese colony that like Hong
Kong is an autonomous region of China. And the conduit for the cash
is the Chinese government-supported payment card network, China
In a warren of gritty streets around Macau's ritzy casino resorts,
hundreds of neon-lit jeweler, watch and pawn shops are doing a brisk
business giving mainland Chinese customers cash by allowing them to
use UnionPay cards to make fake purchases — a way of evading China's
strict currency-export controls.
On a recent day at the Choi Seng Jeweler and Watches company, a
middle-aged woman strode to the counter past dusty shelves of
watches. She handed the clerk her UnionPay card and received
HK$300,000 ($50,000) in cash. She signed a credit card receipt
describing the transaction as a "general sale", stuffed the cash
into her handbag and strolled over to the Ponte 16 casino next door.
The withdrawal far exceeded the daily limit of 20,000 yuan, or
$3,200, in cash that individual Chinese can legally move out of the
mainland. "Don't worry," said a store clerk when asked about the
legality of the transaction. "Everyone does this."
Internal discussion documents prepared by UnionPay and by financial
authorities in Macau and China show these fake sale cash-backs are
widespread in such retail stores. The practice violates China's
anti-money-laundering regulations as well as restrictions on
currency exports, according to Chinese central bank documents
reviewed by Reuters. Chinese authorities also fear the UnionPay
conduit is being used by corrupt officials and business people to
send money out of the country.
It's unclear why the central bank, the Peoples Bank of China (PBOC),
hasn't cracked down harder on the practice, although the documents
Reuters reviewed show the bank was aware it had become a growing
Industry experts point to a weak enforcement culture in China, a
reluctance to hurt Macau financially with 80 percent of the city's
revenues drawn from gambling, and a willingness to tolerate some
capital flight — especially if it can be tracked through names on
bank cards. Moreover, the rapid growth of UnionPay, including the
spread of its terminals at retail stores across the world, is
playing a key role in China's strategy for making the yuan a global
No one knows for sure how much Chinese money is being channeled
illegally into Macau. Tam Chi Keong, an assistant professor at the
Macau University of Science and Technology, puts the total at
HK$1.57 trillion ($202 billion) a year through various channels..
Tam says his estimate is based on his analysis of Macau's finances
and interviews with gambling industry participants.
A senior UnionPay executive said the Shanghai-based company has long
been aware of the payment card abuse in Macau and elsewhere, but was
limited in its ability to act. That's because the primary
responsibility lies with authorities in Macau or any other country
where the fraud is taking place, he said.
"The problem you are talking about has existed for several years,"
said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We have
continuously taken measures."
THE GOVERNMENT'S SON
Though relatively unknown in the West, UnionPay has quietly grown to
become one of the biggest card brands and payment networks in the
world, accepted in 142 countries. There are more UnionPay cards in
circulation now than any other brand — 3.53 billion, or nearly a
quarter of the world's total, according to the industry newsletter,
the Nilson Report. Visa remains the world leader by transaction
value with $4.6 trillion in card transactions in the first half of
2013; UnionPay was second with $2.5 trillion.
If UnionPay poses a problem for Chinese authorities, it is a problem
of their own making. The card brand is often seen as an arm of
Chinese state policy.
UnionPay was established in 2002 by the PBOC and the State Council
or Cabinet. Its founding shareholders were 85 Chinese banks, led by
the five biggest state-owned banks. Former senior PBOC officials
still fill the company's top ranks, including UnionPay's current
chairman, Su Ning, and its former president, Xu Luode. They declined
requests to be interviewed.
UnionPay dominates the card market in China thanks to a central bank
decree that requires all card issuers, including foreign ones, to
process their yuan-based transactions through UnionPay's electronic
payment network. All Chinese merchants and automated teller machines
are required to process their yuan transactions through UnionPay.
The World Trade Organization in July 2012 ruled that China was
discriminating against foreign card brands, but it made no specific
recommendations. Foreign card brands still have to use UnionPay for
settlements in China.
UnionPay's increasing use overseas is part of Beijing's
multi-pronged strategy to eventually open up China's capital account
and internationalize the yuan, which is formally known as the
renminbi or yuan. Beijing also eased restrictions on many kinds of
capital transfers as it gradually loosens up control over the
currency, making it easier for money to leave China's borders. The
efforts have paid dividends. The renminbi has already overtaken the
euro to become the second-most used currency in trade finance,
according to data from global transaction services organization
"(China) may be happy to see UnionPay sweeping different markets
across the world in different countries and territories," said Yan
Lixin, head of Fudan University's China Centre for Anti-Money
Laundering Studies in Shanghai. "It is backed up by the government.
It is the real son of the government."
At the same time, these changes have vastly complicated the
compliance challenges for UnionPay. While the card system is helping
monetary authorities open up the capital account, it is also
enabling people to funnel their ill-gotten gains out of China, said
Yan. "It's not the only tool" for money laundering, Yan says, "but
it's a major tool."
Macau is a prime gateway for this activity. It is the only place in
China where casino gambling is legal, and so Chinese gamblers bring
vast sums of money here. Because Macau is administered separately
from the mainland, there are restrictions on how much currency
mainland Chinese can take into the gambling haven. But gamblers find
ways of skirting currency controls when they cross into Macau. And
much of the money these mainlanders ostensibly take to Macau for
gambling, Chinese authorities believe, is actually going abroad into
Any steps to clamp down on UnionPay cashback transactions would
likely rattle Macau, because the cash also feeds the casino sector
on which the territory's $43.6 billion economy overwhelmingly
depends. Macau is now the world's biggest gambling hub, with
revenues seven times those of Las Vegas. Last year, gambling revenue
rose 19 percent to $45.2 billion. Nearly 40 percent of that went to
the government in taxes.
Beijing is particularly concerned about the role of this capital
flight in the country's endemic government corruption scandals. An
internal research report in 2008 by the PBOC identified UnionPay
cards as one of the main tools for corrupt individuals to facilitate
cross-border transfer of funds. The central bank report said the
practice was growing rapidly.
Many card users follow their money abroad. Since the mid-1990s, an
estimated 16,000 to 18,000 Communist party officials, businessmen,
CEOs and other individuals have "disappeared" from China, according
to a separate PBOC report prepared in 2008 — taking with them some
800 billion yuan ($133 billion).
But the practice isn't limited to corrupt officials. The ubiquitous
UnionPay card, with its instant access to piles of cash, has made
the task of whisking money out of China far easier for ordinary
Today, the outflow is gathering pace.
In Macau, UnionPay card transactions reached 130 billion Macau
patacas ($16.77 billion) in just the first four months of 2012, up
from 88.1 billion patacas in all of 2011, according to a
confidential report by Macau's banking regulator, the Macau Monetary
Authority reviewed by Reuters. Around 90 percent of those
transactions were "highly concentrated in jeweler, ornament and
luxury watch sales", the report said.
If that rate persisted for the full year, UnionPay sales in Macau
for all of 2012 would have reached nearly $50 billion — nearly $45
billion of it for jeweler-related sales, a figure exceeding even
Macau's total gambling revenues that year.
"Are these actual transactions? Where does this money come from?"
the deputy head of the Monetary Authority, Wan Sin Long, asked in
"Banks have not carried out good monitoring, nor earnestly handled
the situation," Wan was cited as saying in the document. "If this
continues, this could affect the question of the further opening up
of the yuan."
All the counter-parties involved benefit from these cashback
transactions, an industry source said. The retail merchant makes
money on the exchange rate, the way a currency trader would. The
Macau banks overseeing the merchant charge 1 percent to 2 percent on
the transaction. And the UnionPay card-issuing bank back in China
will generally charge around 1 percent on the transaction, the
The cashback activity is spreading beyond Macau to other Chinese
tourist destinations, including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea,
people in the credit-card industry say.
UnionPay cashback transactions reached 9.78 billion yuan ($1.59
billion) in 2012 in Taiwan, almost doubling from the year before,
according to a report by Taiwan's government investigation agency.
Taiwan authorities said in January, given the abnormal UnionPay
transactions they found, they would consider setting up a
cross-straits mechanism to ensure timely information exchange and
prevent illegal money laundering, according to CNA, its
semi-official news agency. Taiwan's cabinet is considering the
China isn't standing still. A decade ago, the government began
trying to rein in money laundering, and since then it has amended
criminal laws and strengthened commercial banking rules.
UnionPay officials say they are trying to stamp out the illicit
transfers. One of the main steps the company took came in June of
2012, when it required UnionPay card-issuing banks to put a 1
million yuan ($166,000) daily limit on any transaction in Macau,
down from 5 million to 10 million yuan previously. That limit
applies to actual sale transactions.
UnionPay's rivals, meanwhile, don't appear to be playing the
cashback game. Macau jeweler stores visited for this article said
Visa and Mastercard were not generally used for cashback
A senior executive with a rival card brand said his company had
"zero tolerance" for the kind of cashbacks allowed by UnionPay. "We
don't allow jeweler stores to give any form of cash whatsoever,"
this person said. "That's completely illegal... Both as a bank and a
(card) network, we're supposed to close it down immediately."
LOCAL AUTHORITIES RESPONSIBLE
In a written response to questions for this article, UnionPay said
it "has always strictly prohibited the swiping of cards for cash
without any goods being purchased and has collaborated from many
sides to boost the investigation of such risks."
According to UnionPay's "Operating Regulations," overseas banks
participating in the UnionPay system are required to close the
accounts of merchants found to be engaged in fraudulent
But local authorities such as the Macau Monetary Authority have the
primary responsibility for investigating suspicious cross-border
transactions, the company says.
The Macau Monetary Authority said in a written response that bank
card-related businesses in Macau have "been subject to very
stringent ongoing supervision."
The authority noted it has "come across a couple of cases of
supervisory concerns, and legal proceedings were taken against the
parties concerned, including merchants." It didn't elaborate.
Deborah Ng, head of Macau's Financial Intelligence Office, said
UnionPay has tried to take a more active role recently to "take care
of whether there are some irregular activities involved."
But the card company can do more, she said in an interview. "They
need to have some monitoring of abnormally large transactions, (and)
frequent transactions from some commercial merchants," Ng said.
Despite the professed intensity in scrutiny, the practice continues
At a jeweler outlet run by Hong Kong-listed Chow Tai Fook in the
Grand Lisboa casino, staff said customers could swipe UnionPay cards
to buy gold bullion of up to 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) — then
sell it straight back for hard cash.
A Chow Tai Fook spokesman confirmed that. He said the store had "no
specific limits on the amount that our customers can buy using any
form of payment, as long as the payment is approved by the bank when
we swipe the card."
At a jeweler store inside the Venetian Macau casino run by Las Vegas
Sands, a manager said card cashbacks constituted most of the shop's
business. The shop was run by the owner of a VIP room or "junket"
operator, which brings in big gamblers from the mainland.
"I would say there's no upper limit for UnionPay," said the
black-suited manager, who spoke on the condition he not be
identified. "The credit limits aren't enforced at all."
An executive at Las Vegas Sands, speaking on condition of anonymity,
said vendors with UnionPay card-swiping machines have been caught
wandering around the casino.
"People walk around with mobile union pay card machines on the
gaming floor," the executive said. "They are linked to China
(computer) servers, not (ones in) Macau. So it is like they are
getting cash out in China. When we see them on the floor we kick
That practice also exists outside the casinos, too. Macau's
merchants lately have tried to better disguise the UnionPay
transactions by routing transactions electronically across the
border to China to escape the scrutiny of Macau authorities, a
banker in Macau said.
"They closed the Macau tap, but they've opened an even larger China
tap," said the Macau banker with direct knowledge of the practice.
"The merchants are always cunning."
A UnionPay memo to banks and counterparties in Macau, dated October
29 and reviewed by Reuters, said the company was aware of these
practices and had initiated steps to stop it. It urged Macau banks
and UnionPay counterparties to crack down by blacklisting such
retailers and fining them.
UnionPay said in the memo it hoped that all parties with UnionPay
linked business would make a "concerted effort to rectify Macau's
UnionPay card transaction market discipline and sustain its stable
longer term development."
A visit to Macau since the memo was issued, however, found cashback
services to be flourishing.
Inside seven such stores, customers were observed swiping UnionPay
cards at glass counters and receiving wads of cash without actually
"We can remit as much money as you like with your UnionPay card,"
said a red-haired man surnamed Lai at one jeweler shop. A yellow
sign carried the slogan: "Welcome Renminbi. Welcome UnionPay cards."
"You don't actually buy anything," said Lai, standing near a
half-empty display case containing a messy spread of watches and
jeweler. "We just help people get money out of China so they can
(Additional reporting by Farah Master in
Macau and; Yimou Lee in Hong Kong; editing by Bill Tarrant and