China's Detention Of Packer Staff Takes Shine Off Crown

But it's not known what effect the arrest of staff will have on the gambling giant's operations.

17/10/2016 2:27 PM AEDT | Updated 17/10/2016 2:29 PM AEDT
Bobby Yip / Reuters
A view of Melco Crown's Studio City, complete with a 130m high Ferris wheel on top of the resort, in Macau, China.

Shares in Crown Resorts were smashed on Monday following news 18 employees had been detained in China amid a crackdown on gambling advertising, with investors nervous about the extent of the signal about gambling Chinese authorities are sending.

Three Australians are among the staff detained on Friday, including the head of Crown's VIP International Team, Jason O'Connor. Chinese authorities have said the group are being detained for alleged gambling crimes, but have so far declined to elaborate on the charges.

Crown shares fell more than 12 percent shortly after local markets opened, and were down 10 percent on Monday as news of the group's arrest spread.

Crown is part owned by billionaire James Packer, and it has substantial interests in the Chinese gambling hub of Macau, a former Portuguese colony and the only place in China where casino gambling is legal.

Shares in Crown Resorts nosedived on Monday

Bloomberg reports Casino shares fell in Hong Kong after news of the detention broke.

Details remain scarce

Crown is yet to speak to its staff has been detained, but said in a statement it was believed to be the case.

"To date, Crown has not been able to speak with our employees and is working closely with DFAT to urgently make contact and ascertain their welfare," Crown said in a statement.

"Crown is staying in close contact with and is providing support to the families of our employees in China and Australia."

The Department of Foreign Affairs said on Monday it was aware of reports the staff's detention, but that under the terms of a bilateral consular treaty Chinese authorities had three days to notify of the detention of Australians.

Crown's senior international VIP manager, Jason O'Connor, is believed to have been detained by authorities, Crown said.

"Consular officials will seek to offer appropriate consular assistance to the detained Australians in accordance with the Consular services charter," DFAT said in a statement.

China's Ministry of Public Security announced a crackdown on attempts by foreign casinos to lure its citizens abroad in February 2015 -- an anti-corruption drive that has recently targeted money laundering at Macau casinos.

It is understood the Crown staff were arrested in multiple cities in mainland China, and it comes just days ahead of Crown Resort's Annual General Meeting on Thursday.

The husband of a Shanghai-based Crown employee told Fairfax media his wife, Jiang Ling, answered a midnight knock on the door to find five plain-clothed police officers.

"I kept saying ... 'Why are you here?'. They kept repeating 'Oh, your wife knows' and she didn't obviously... they finally said 'gambling'," Ms Jiang's husband Jeff Sikkema told Fairfax Media.

"The main thing that I understood ... they wanted to know was who her boss was and some of her other colleagues, just looking for names."

Australian billionaire James Packer, co-chairman of Melco Crown Entertainment, attends a news conference at Melco Crown's Studio City in Macau in 2015.

Part of a wider crackdown

The long-term effects, if any, of the arrests are yet to unfold, but they follow similar incidents involving South Korean Casino staff last year.

"If they have identified Australia as a major country where gambling money is flowing and (China) wants to stop that, then they would presumably want to send a signal," said Hans Hendrischke, Professor of Chinese Business and Management at Sydney University's Business School.

Hendrischke told The Huffington Post Australia the fallout from this incident remained uncertain.

"The seriousness of that signalling, that's information we simply don't have at this stage," he said.

"It's too early to tell."

Market analysts CLSA said the arrests could signal a crackdown on gambling marketing, but it noted Crown had always differentiated its marketing activities from other operators.

"So it could signal a broader crackdown on foreign casinos marketing in China," the CLSA analyses said.

"It's not yet clear why this has happened."

The City of Dreams complex, operated by Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd., stands illuminated at night in Macau, China, where in February gambling revenues extended an almost two-year slump as high-rollers stayed home.


What effect the detention of the Australians will have on Packer's project is not yet known, but it could take a hit given its earnings are expected to rely heavily on VIP punters and not slot machines.

More than a third of revenue generated by Crown's Australian resorts over the past financial year was from international visitors, mostly from mainland China, the company's 2016 annual report says.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports the raids are expected to heighten the concerns of Chinese gamblers looking to come out to Australia.

In June last year Korea Casino operators saw their shares dip after China arrested 14 South Koreans for allegedly marketing to Chinese gamblers in Macau.

Crown announced in June it was planning to separate its Australian assets from its Macau casinos which had been hit hard by the gambling crackdown.

AFP/Getty Images
Splashes of colour adorn buildings in the developing area of Barangaroo in Sydney's inner-city on September 21, 2016.

In 2009 China arrested Stern Hu, a senior executive for mining giant Rio Tinto, on charges of taking and receiving commissions as part of China's anti-corruption crackdown.

Hu pleaded guilty to stealing commercial secrets and was sentenced to ten years in prison.

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