US-Sino tensions help spawn China card game craze

By Yew Lun Tian

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s bankers and business executives have become increasingly reliant on domestic capital in recent years as foreign funding has dried up, but a popular way to unlock that cash may very well involve “throwing eggs”.

The term refers to Guandan, a poker-like card game that has been around for decades, but has gained fresh life among venture capitalists a few years ago as they awoke to its popularity among wealthy local government officials in eastern regions.

“Officials like this game, so we play along,” said Yang Yiming, an investment banker whose job involves canvassing government funding for projects linked to semiconductors and defence.

The growing interest in business circles has spawned a craze for the game nationwide, driven partly by financial constraints stemming from souring ties with China’s biggest trade partner, the United States.

This month U.S. President Joe Biden barred some investment in semiconductors and set controls on other sensitive sectors, aiming to curb trade and funding that could give rival Beijing an edge in technology.

Total U.S.-based venture-capital investment in China plummeted to $9.7 billion last year from $32.9 billion in 2021, PitchBook data shows.

Domestic private capital has also dwindled as President Xi Jinping signalled his preference for a bigger state presence in the economy by launching crackdowns over the last few years in areas from technology to real estate and private tutoring.

As investment prospects darken, financiers increasingly view the game as a way to build ‘guanxi’ or connections with officials who hold the purse strings on local projects, especially those overseas investors might consider too risky.

“In finance, information is currency,” said Yang, for whom a game of guandan has become a standard gambit before wining and dining local officials.

“During a game which can stretch for hours, we are bound to chit-chat, and sometimes useful information gets passed around after people feel comfortable and trust you.”

Yu Longze, a broker based in Beijing, said his boss this month ordered all staff to learn the game.

Like bridge, the classic staple, the game is played among four players paired up in teams. Using two decks, players must throw down poker and other special card combinations to clear their hands before opponents.

“From observing someone’s playing style, you can tell if he is smart, aggressive or a team player. This can help you decide if you want him as a business partner,” said a businessman surnamed Huang, who runs a private clubhouse where the game has become a favourite pastime of officials and company executives.

But not everyone treats guandan as a business tool.

Many players say they simply enjoy the mental stimulation from a game that is cheap, convenient to play and allows them to socialise – aspects that, taken together, explain its appeal to all walks of life.

Customers ranged from retired people to young professionals seeking to build new social ties, said Hua Min, who this year opened the first bar dedicated to hosting guandan games in Beijing, the capital.

Li Keshu, a lawyer, said playing with his friends in a park helped get through the social isolation and economic frustration of the COVID-19 years, when China threw up strict barriers against infection.

“It’s cost-free. Unlike ‘Texas Hold’em’ or mahjong, this game doesn’t need to be played with money to be fun. On the contrary, money spoils the friendship and the game.”

While the players Reuters spoke to said they do not gamble, Chinese officials have been censured in the past for receiving bribes through the playing of card games or the traditional tile pastime of mahjong.

In April, the ruling Communist Party’s anti-graft watchdog censured one of its officials in the eastern province of Anhui for playing guandan during a training course, among other misdeeds.

In a sign that Beijing is not perturbed by the growing interest in the game, however, China’s national sports authority has organised the first nationwide guandan competition this year.

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Editing by John Geddie and Clarence Fernandez)