Not content to challenge Hong Kong with gold and stock exchanges and pleasure palaces inlaid with abalone, Shanghai wants to go one further - setting up a race track. The mastermind behind the scheme is Wu Guangwei, a professor at the management school of Tongji University, who has drawn up a plan, won support from parts of the city government and sent it to the central government for approval. His proposal calls for the course to be built on the eastern tip of Chongming, a large island in the Yangtze River on the northeast side of the city. 'A race course would bring many visitors to the island and accelerate its development, employ many people and stimulate the tourism, transport, hotel and entertainment sectors,' he told Shanghai delegates to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at a meeting in the city last month. The builder would be Chongming Dong Tan Investment Development, a subsidiary of the listed Shanghai Industrial Group, one of the city's most powerful state-owned conglomerates. Hong Kong companies have shown interest, and the city government has set up a liaison office to promote the race course and related projects. Government has even approved spending 12.2 billion yuan (HK$11.5 billion) to build an expressway to the island. But there is one big snag - the central government's ban on gambling (except for two state-sponsored lotteries). Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Ningbo have all built tracks and held races with betting on the horses - until the central government found out about them. Only last August, the ministries of Public Security and Finance, the State Planning and Development Commission, the National Tourism Bureau and National Sports Bureau issued a joint order banning gambling at race courses. City governments and entrepreneurs see the hundreds of millions of dollars their compatriots spend in casinos and race tracks in Macau, Las Vegas, Atlantic City and North Korea, and ask why they cannot spend the money at home. But the government believes gambling is an innate weakness of the Chinese and that, once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be out of control. In Shanghai, stories circulate of the pre-1949 pleasure parlours in which gamblers lost all their money, then their houses and finally their wives. There is no sign the government will relent. Until it does, the sounds coming from eastern Chongming Island will not be the roar of frenzied punters, but the placid lapping of the river.