Wynn Las Vegas

[Vegas on My Mind]

Steve Wynn’s continued deference to China rings hollow

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Wynn/lose: Despite massive market losses for his Macau property, Steve Wynn continues to handle China with kid gloves.
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Imagine that you ran a huge company that just suffered a very bad year. Your stock price is off by more than 40 percent, and once-reliable growth for your market has been replaced with sudden contraction and utter uncertainty. And imagine that all of that came from government intervention. Imagine that a single person snapped his fingers and altered the landscape of your economy, of who your customers were, of how they could spend their money.

You’d be pretty pissed, right? And if you were Steve Wynn and the leader who single-handedly—and somewhat intentionally!—undermined your businesses was the president of the country in which you operate, you’d be all over the news calling him a socialist, an incompetent, a menace to the fabric of everything you and yours hold dear. You might even make hollow threats to leave, so eager are you to gin up political outrage.

Unless you can’t. Unless mounting a vigorous defense or expressing white-hot anger in public is a surefire way to, say, have your business confiscated and your workers forced to walk off your construction sites regardless of the millions you’ve already spent.

So it happens for Wynn, erstwhile antagonist of the Democrats and their White House occupant, in his beloved Macau. Early last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping became alarmed at the outflow of cash from China’s wealthiest to America’s gambling in circumvention of China’s laws. His crackdown has been devastating for the middlemen of Macau’s gaming, the “junket operators” acting as banks and don’t-ask-don’t-tell debt enforcers because the Chinese government refuses to allow casinos to issue credit lines or turn to the criminal justice system to pursue deadbeats.

This all took place without any legislative process of note. One man says it is thus and thus it is. No consultations with business leaders or campaign donors, no chance for lobbyists to warn or entice elected flunkies, no Supreme Court challenges to the legality of such fiats.

The instantaneous results: Seven consecutive months of falling revenues and, in particular, a 30 percent drop in December’s take versus December 2013, the biggest plummet in Macau’s modern era. Forbes reported that the crackdown was responsible for a $73 billion loss of market value for Wynn Macau, the Chinese subsidiary.

Amid this, Wynn kept up his obsequious act. He is “more scared about the United States than I am about China,” he told CNBC in October. “Everyone in China is pragmatic and practical.” Translation: I’ll just get this Xi dude on the horn and charm him into the light.

Contrast that to the way Wynn is known to handle frustration with American politicians. Both Sen. Harry Reid and former Rep. Shelley Berkley have recounted for me times when Wynn called to berate them like chambermaids who failed to empty his wastebaskets, a colorful example of an uncensored, tough-talking billionaire. Yet events continue to undermine Wynn’s credibility. He’s more scared about the U.S. than China? Really? At a moment when his Chinese fortunes have been altered by the whims of one person whose judgment he cannot appeal or even bitch about in public? Isn’t that the definition of instability and unpredictability?

Wynn has said more than once how unnecessary Western-style liberties are to the Chinese people. It’s not a part of the culture; they’re accustomed to thousands of years of subjugation; they’re now enjoying Western materialism and that’s really all that matters, right? “I’ve met Chinese people by the thousands,” he once said to me, invoking the image of an epic receiving line, “and they’re happy.”

Sure. They’re happy until they’re not—and then there’s not a damn thing they can do or say about it. I mean, they can light themselves on fire, as a few hundred of the most desperate do each year. And they can mount sustained protests in a place like Hong Kong, where the whole world is watching.

But that’s about it. Wynn isn’t a different man in China than he is here. He’s always full of piss and vinegar, always quick to anger when something interferes with his money minting. He must be livid over what China has done and, worse yet, the fact that he has no way to release that ire.

So maybe he’s learned what it is to be under the thumb of an actual repressive regime. He has, after all, offered a minor recalibration to his unabashed adoration for Beijing-style despotism. Around 2010, as his assaults on Obama reached new heights—because the former senator from Illinois and his health plan were somehow responsible for the banking system’s collapse and the overbuilding of the Vegas Strip?—Wynn declared that his was “more of a Chinese company than American company today.” Perhaps, he said then, he would move his corporate headquarters there. In October, he modified that: “We’re an American company. … Our revenue is Asian, but we’re an American company. We’re American people, and proud to be so.”

Yes, he’s already made ungodly sums from his China arrangements. But he also made ungodly sums from his American arrangements, and that didn’t stop him from condemning our political and economic system at the first whiff of policies he disliked.

Nobody begrudges Wynn his need to whisper sweet nothings in China’s ear. That’s the game over there. But sucking up to an odious regime by degrading and insulting ours? That works when the getting is good in China, sure. But the Chinese aren’t stupid. At moments like this, they can see right through it, just like the rest of us.

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