Jinan, China - "Support the elderly, aid the weak, help the needy," read the red-and-yellow canopies strung up throughout the eastern Chinese city of Jinan.
But the excited crowds that gather every afternoon to jostle and crane their necks for a peek at the action below have only one goal in mind: striking it rich.
While gambling officially remains illegal in China, the ruling Communist Party vigorously promotes the lottery. Official newspapers that once praised model workers and soldiers now laud citizens who hit the jackpot after faithfully buying tickets every day, and urge young people to buy scratch-and-wins as birthday presents for friends.
"Many of them want to change their social status by becoming rich overnight. Buying lottery tickets becomes their means when there are no better or faster ways to achieve this."
- Chen Haiming, Beijing Normal University
In 2011, lottery sales reached a record 221 billion yuan ($35.5 billion), a 33 percent increase from the previous year.
While China promotes the lottery to help alleviate the country's social ills, betting is creating problems of its own, with gambling addiction and lottery-related crime on the rise.
China outlawed all forms of gambling in 1949, soon after the Communist Party took power. But in 1987, with the country undergoing a raft of economic and social reforms, a state-run lottery was established to provide funding for public welfare projects.
The China Welfare Lottery, under the authority of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, now supports causes ranging from nursing homes to disaster relief, in addition to bolstering the country's social security fund.
A second one, the China Sports Lottery created in 1994, is managed at the national level by the country's State General Administration of Sports, and overseen locally by provincial sports bureaus. Funds raised are typically used to promote public fitness, as well as training for China's Olympic athletes.
The two lotteries are roughly equal in size and scope, though Welfare Lottery sales are typically slightly larger. The two often operate literally side-by-side, with vendors setting up shop next door to each other.
The lottery's new growth is plainly visible in the eastern coastal province of Shandong, where ticket sales totalled more than 2 million yuan ($321,000) in 2011. In what China's Ministry of Finance dubbed an "historic" increase, sales jumped 43 percent from the previous year, the second-highest rise of any province, after neighbouring Jiangsu.
In Jinan, Shandong's capital, outdoor stands selling lottery tickets can be found in nearly every park, shopping mall and street corner.
A local newspaper reported last summer that there were 17 lottery stands in the city's main public square alone, causing residents and tourists to complain the game was becoming an eyesore.
Overworked commuters stop to try their luck at winning their dream vacation, young couples teasingly race to find the first prize, and children drag their weary parents to buy colourful scratch cards adorned with smiling cartoon characters.
As winter temperatures drive pedestrians off the streets, the number of lottery stands in central Quancheng Square has shrunk to about 10 on a typical weekday. But that number nearly doubles on weekends as vendors set out their tables to meet the eager crowds.
Tang Wenxing, who runs a Welfare Lottery stand at a busy corner of the square, says office workers make up most of his business. "They go to work every day. It's boring," he says. "And they want to strike it rich."
Stacks of scratch tickets are carefully lined up across Tang's table, from the 5-yuan ($0.80) "Hot and Spicy Sixes" to the 20-yuan ($3.20) "Secret of the Red Chambre". In between, a 10-yuan ($1.60) "Merry Christmas" ticket hides a maximum prize of 250,000 yuan ($40,000) behind a tree decorated with snowflakes and reindeer.
Cards with pictures of Confucius and Sun Tzu give players the chance to scratch to find prize-winning quotes from the ancient sages.
Steps away, the Sports Lottery offers a range of NBA-themed tickets for China's countless basketball fans, alongside a stack of 10-yuan ($1.60) cards adorned with seashells and starfish promoting the 2012 Asian Beach Games.
"Some organs and media are fond of giving exaggerated publicity to stories of winning the jackpot."
- People's Daily editorial
Yao Dezheng, 27, says he sells 30,000-40,000 yuan ($4,800-$6,400) worth of lottery tickets every month from his stand on Quancheng Square. In the spring and summer months, his sales can exceed 100,000 yuan ($16,000).
Addicted to betting
While the lottery is a boon for China's state coffers, there is also a growing awareness of the negative effects its success has brought.
A study released in March by researchers at Beijing Normal University claimed nearly seven million lottery players are "problem" buyers, while 430,000 are seriously addicted. The study put China's total number of lottery players at 200 million.
Buyers are overwhelmingly male and generally young, with about 73 percent aged between 26 and 34.
Nearly 70 percent have an average income of 3,000 to 5,000 yuan ($480 to $800) per month, the study found. Most of those surveyed described themselves as lower or lower-middle class.
"Many of them want to change their social status by becoming rich overnight. Buying lottery tickets becomes their means when there are no better or faster ways to achieve this," researcher Chen Haiming told the state-run Global Times newspaper.
The Beijing Normal University study sparked widespread debate over what was dubbed China's "problem lottery". Led by the official press, most commentators pointed blame at the media for leading players astray.
A June editorial in the Workers' Daily attributed China's lottery "madness" on "irrational promotion, stirring up an inappropriate outlook on wealth".
Lotteries' dark side
The People's Daily agreed with the Communist Party's official mouthpiece observing that "some organs and media are fond of giving exaggerated publicity to stories of winning the jackpot".
"Only by returning the focus of propaganda to public welfare can we treat the causes of 'problem lottery,'" it said.
|Chinese spent $35.5bn on lotteries in 2011 [Al Jazeera]
But despite such high-level chastisement, news stories still appear daily suggesting that the winning ticket is just within reach.
Many stories feature a heart-warming, personal touch such as an elderly war veteran who bought a winning ticket thinking of an old comrade-in-arms, or a young Zhejiang woman who hit the jackpot together with her father after a long and difficult journey home.
But the lottery's dark side is also becoming a regular feature in the news. On December 6, a 38-year-old migrant worker in Zhejiang province was sentenced to six months in prison after stealing 151 lottery tickets, hoping in vain to win the 5 million yuan ($800,000) top prize.
Three days later, Guangzhou's Yangcheng Evening News reported that a local nurse had paid 200,000 yuan ($32,000) to a fraudulent online "VIP club" that claimed to offer inside tips on hitting the jackpot.
But such stories have done little to dampen the spirits of China's lottery enthusiasts. While sales tend to slow in the fall and winter months, nationwide sales in October were still six percent higher than the previous year.
And vendors have their eye on the January 2013 Spring Festival, when a range of new lotteries will be rolled out to greet for buyers eager to welcome in the Chinese New Year with a little good fortune of their own.