Having lost a fortune, Ren's on a mission to save China's gambling addicts
Peter Simpson in Beijing
China may not have a team to champion in the World Cup but a hero has emerged among the tens of thousands addicted to betting on Germany 2006. Ren Jia, a self-made multi-millionaire who lost it all by betting on football, is ignoring death threats to publicly condemn gambling and offer counselling to those who face financial ruin over the next few weeks.
'Gambling is society's new evil,' the 36-year-old entrepreneur said.
Though illegal, millions of Chinese are estimated to be staking billions of yuan on games via shady agents and loansharks who use the telephone and internet for transactions.
Ren arrived in the capital 10 years ago with 1,400 yuan in his pocket and built with a partner a thriving conference business.
But he became addicted to gambling during the 2002 World Cup and a tail-spin into financial ruin followed. He lost his business, four properties and nearly his family to pay his debts to loansharks, who work in tandem with the illegal bookies.
'I won 40,000 yuan during the South Korea and Japan tournament and then spent the next three years losing everything on the major European football leagues.
'You get sucked in and then have to borrow easy money at high rates because illegal gambling is run like a pyramid scheme by the agents. It becomes uncontrollable. I lost three million yuan,' he said.
'Germany 2006 brings back nightmares, but I am doing my best to help those who might end up like me.'
He is counselling addicted gamblers who call his number, which he published during an innocuous blog forum on gambling two weeks ago.
'Many of my friends said they were going to start betting on Germany 2006. I was horrified so I posted my comments on a blog and urged anyone with a problem to call me and stay away from the agents,' said Ren, who has confessed his addiction to the China News newspaper.
He claims to have received 2,000 calls from across the country from those on the verge of losing everything during the four-week tournament. During this interview, two people - one a gambler and another a gambler's wife - called asking for advice.
'I've been getting 20 to 30 calls a day, sometimes in the early hours. Some are from old gambling agents saying I will never give up betting on football, and some are from agents threatening to kill me for publishing what is going on,' he said.
Ren, and his wife, Zhang Jiayin, 36, and their son, five, and daughter, nine, live in a modest housing estate in the far northern suburbs of Beijing, having been forced to move from their swanky downtown apartment last year.
'If I fear my family is in real danger, we will move, but I will continue to tell my lesson,' he said.
He is now selling his story to the mainland media and is to appear on the country's main TV station, the state-run CCTV 1 later this week. 'I want to expose my own experience to the public and establish an anti-gambling law for the internet. I hope the public can take my case as a lesson,' he said.
A spokesperson for the Beijing Public Security Bureau told the China Times newspaper that internet bookmakers were hard to police because they used international servers. 'But we can beat the gambling agents,' said the spokesperson.The government, aware bets worth billions are being wagered, has been attempting to bring in some form of legal betting, and controls the lottery, for which seven newspapers are offering tips.