Bangkok, Thailand – October 24, 2023
Zhang Hongliang, a former restaurant manager from central China, found himself caught in a web of cyber scams in Southeast Asia after losing his job during the COVID-19 pandemic.
His story is just one among tens of thousands of individuals, predominantly Chinese but not exclusively, who have become unwittingly entangled in the complex networks of cyber scam operations run by powerful Chinese criminal syndicates in the region.
While authorities from both China and the region have made efforts to crack down on these scams, experts believe that the roots of these networks run deep, making it challenging to eradicate the problem.
Cyber scam operations have a remarkable ability to resurface in new locations once shut down in one place, posing a significant embarrassment to Beijing. This persistent issue has discouraged ordinary Chinese citizens from traveling to Southeast Asia, fueled by fears of falling victim to scams or even being kidnapped and roped into cyber scam activities.
Reports in recent years have revealed how young individuals have been lured to places like Cambodia and Myanmar with the promise of high-paying jobs, only to be coerced into working as scammers. Some have endured physical abuse and harsh punishments if they fail to meet their scamming quotas.
In August, China, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar established a joint police operations center to combat cyber scams in the region. However, the situation remains complex. On October 10, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced the successful return of 2,317 “scam suspects” from northern Myanmar to China, though experts argue that many of these individuals are victims forced to work for criminal syndicates. Concerns loom over their treatment upon their return to China.
These schemes, predominantly based in countries like Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, often operate hand-in-hand with local elites. These regions hold strategic positions, frequently aligning with the substantial infrastructure projects driven by President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative in China.
Myanmar’s border regions have long been a hotspot for various criminal activities due to lax law enforcement. Ethnic minority armed groups control many of these areas, some in opposition to or collaboration with Myanmar’s central government, and some even cooperate with organized crime gangs.
Jason Tower, an expert on transnational crime with the United States Institute of Peace, highlights the embarrassment for the Chinese government as these criminal networks operate across Southeast Asia. Tower’s research has uncovered links between the criminals and Chinese state enterprises, think tanks, and government officials, suggesting a complex web of relationships.
Zhang’s ordeal began in Thailand, where he met an individual who lured him into a cyber-scam compound in Myanmar. Promising a well-paying job teaching Chinese cooking, Zhang ended up caught in the scheme. He eventually managed to escape and return to China, but many others remain ensnared in similar situations.
Efforts by Chinese authorities have led to the detention of approximately 4,000 suspects who have been brought back to China. However, experts argue that these enforcement actions are far from comprehensive. The criminal groups have demonstrated remarkable resilience, often shifting their operations when faced with crackdowns.
Cambodia, for example, saw many of these groups relocate to less-patrolled areas in Myanmar after the crackdown on online gambling rings and illegal casinos in 2019.
Although China has been making efforts to improve its reputation and deal with this matter, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, maintains that a long-term, all-encompassing endeavor is necessary to effectively resolve the underlying issues.
The challenges posed by these cyber scam networks are complex and enduring, with their operations continuing to thrive despite various crackdowns and challenges.