Chinese gambling site founder linked to $2 billion Singapore money laundering case

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A man who made millions offering illegal online gambling services to players in China is among a number of individuals who avoided arrest in Singapore during the Aug 15 anti-money laundering blitz.

Wang Bingang formed his group in 2012 when he was only 23 years old. In two short years, the young man from Anxi, Fujian, started churning out millions by running the Hongli International gambling site from the Philippines and Cambodia. Hongli means “great profits” in Mandarin.

Wang, now 34, was living in a good class bungalow in Rochalie Drive in Tanglin, which he rented with Wang Liyun, believed to be his wife, when Singapore police arrested 10 foreigners.

His family and helper continue to live at the address.

When The Straits Times (ST) visited the bungalow last Thursday, the metal gate of the two-storey house was wide open, revealing two Toyota Alphards and a Rolls-Royce in the front yard.

Their domestic helper, who has been working for the family for a year, insisted the couple are in Singapore, but were not at home at the time. But others said the pair, who would throw parties at the house every month or so, have not been seen for about a month.

Checks showed that in 2022, Wang Bingang signed up with Sentosa Golf Club, where foreigners have to pay about $950,000 to join as a member.

A Sept 12 notice at the club showed that he, along with five others linked to the investigation in Singapore, had been put on a defaulters’ list, which means he has not settled his accounts there.

He does not show up in business records, but Wang Liyun has interests in several businesses, including a bridal shop.

The pair are on a list of 34 names, which the Ministry of Law sent on Aug 27 to dealers of precious metals and stones to flag for suspicious transactions that may involve money laundering. The list includes the names of the 10 arrested here in the operation, including an individual who is said to be Wang Bingang’s relative.

Assets seized and frozen in the money laundering case here have swelled to $2.4 billion.

In court hearings, police said that one of the accused individuals, 31-year-old Chinese national Wang Baosen, is the cousin of a fugitive they identified as Subject Y.

Wang Baosen, who prosecutors said is linked to a criminal syndicate overseas, is currently facing two money laundering charges here relating to monies from illegal remote gambling.

Police said more than $100 million worth of assets in Singapore belonging to Subject Y have been seized or issued prohibition of disposal orders.

Operated in Philippines

ST examined various documents, including court papers from Wang Bingang’s conviction in China, to trace his rise.

The Hongli group’s reach was also detailed in Chinese media reports and by organisations such as the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), an American federal institution established by the US Congress in 1984.

Wang Bingang set up the Hongli International gambling site with two associates, including fellow Anxi native, 25-year-old Wang Cailin.

They were among the pioneer Philippine offshore gambling operators, known colloquially as Pogos, to set up an online gambling firm in the country. Like the others, they targeted gamblers all over China, where online gambling is illegal.

The flashy site offered games such as blackjack and baccarat, and provided sports and e-sports betting services. Gamblers could also become promoters and earn a commission by inviting other players to the platform.

The business turned a profit quickly, but the authorities in the Philippines started cracking down on online gambling firms amid reports of violent criminal activities, including kidnapping and murder.

In 2014, Wang Bingang moved his operations to Bavet in Cambodia and recruited a man named Wang Xiaolong into the business. Wang Baosen was allegedly also roped in, according to media reports.

Hongli was a well-oiled machine, complete with graphic designers, and customer service and finance management staff. It grew rapidly and soon became the largest gambling website in Bavet, which borders Vietnam.

With Beijing putting tackling corruption centre stage, the authorities in China started clamping down on online gambling activities. In July 2014, a customer of Hongli’s surrendered himself at a police station in Ma’anshan city in Anhui province after going bankrupt.

This started a chain of events that led to Wang Bingang’s arrest, according to an article published on the official WeChat page of the People’s Procuratorate in Tongshan district in Xuzhou city.

The article is based on a 2015 documentary on the Hongli case by Chinese broadcaster CCTV. The documentary is currently unavailable on the broadcaster’s page.

According to the article, the police investigated bank accounts listed on the site that received bets and sieved through transaction data to arrest promoters of the site. Through follow-up interviews, they identified Wang Cailin.

He was on a trip from Cambodia to Xiamen, China, to introduce his pregnant girlfriend to his parents when the police arrested him on Nov 26, 2014. He was tight-lipped at first, but eventually revealed the identity of the group’s head honcho – Wang Bingang.

Wang Bingang, who is a Chinese national but has Cambodian citizenship, was hiding in the Tian Tian Fishing Port hotel in Bavet in February 2015 when the police came looking for him. Wang Xiaolong was with him.

As online gambling was legal in Cambodia at the time, Chinese police were not allowed to storm the building and could only wait for the elusive headman to leave.

Describing the waiting game, the article said in Mandarin: “Wang Bingang and his associate seemed to have felt the tense atmosphere outside the hotel and refused to leave, even after half a month.

“As Chinese New Year was around the corner, (investigators) were contemplating: Should they continue waiting or temporarily retreat? Everyone was worried.”

He finally stepped out for a meal and was arrested on Feb 16, 2015. He was repatriated to China on Feb 25.

The investigations by the police in China stretched over seven months. They froze 487 gambling accounts, and found that the illicit proceeds from over just six months was a whopping 984 million yuan.

Key players including Wang Cailin and Wang Baosen had a monthly 10,000 yuan salary, along with a cut of the site’s profits, according to court documents from the Ma’anshan city district court where the case was heard.

Wang Bingang pocketed two million yuan in total from the scheme.

Prosecutors said that to evade the law, the suspects used different mobile phones for work and their personal life, tapped different online accounts, and regularly changed the Skype username they used for communicating and giving commands.

In court, Bingang’s lawyer claimed his client did not qualify as the headman of a criminal organisation.

The court said Hongli cannot be counted as a “criminal organisation” as it was not structured, and Bingang could not be indicted as a headman but only as the main perpetrator of a crime.

On Aug 26, 2015, he and five of his associates were found guilty. They were given jail sentences of between 10 months and three years, and slapped with fines of between 50,000 and three million yuan.

Wang Bingang was handed a three-year jail term, which was to end on Feb 15, 2018. Wang Baosen was investigated in relation to the case, but there is no information about his court trial or sentence.

Despite the crackdown eight years ago, Hongli International appears to still be operating.

Mr Jason Tower, country director for the Myanmar programme at USIP, said Hongli has been a known name in the illegal gambling industry for some years.

He added that it still has active online gambling platforms accessible via social media links.

“You can find many online gambling links that go back to Hongli... they come and go, they seem to be taken down or the websites become defunct very quickly, but a new one will always emerge,” said Mr Tower, who has more than 20 years’ experience working on conflict issues in South-east Asia.

Checks by ST found that the site’s name has appeared in at least 15 X (formerly Twitter) posts from 2016 to 2022. These posts state various website addresses that are linked to gambling sites with different names.

Another gang

The Hongli gang is not the only foreign syndicate linked to investigations in Singapore. The police are also exploring the connection between some of the 10 arrested here and the Heng Bo Bao Wang group.

One of those arrested here, Vang Shuiming, 42, is said to be a known associate of the syndicate. Vang currently faces one forgery charge and four money laundering charges in Singapore.

The police said the Turkish national, who is also known as Wang Shuiming, had communicated with a Suspect X, who is no longer in Singapore, about illegal activities.

The police did not identify Suspect X, but said he is wanted in connection to the ongoing probe, and in China for online gambling activities.

The Heng Bo Bao Wang gambling syndicate was busted in May 2022, in an operation that saw Shandong police arrest 131 people and seize more than 10 million yuan (S$1.87 million) in assets.

The group, which had a base in Cambodia, had developed and maintained several online casinos, and either provided the services directly or leased the gambling services out to others to run.

Vang’s brother, Wang Shuiting, is among nine members of the Heng Bo Bao Wang gang who are on the run from the authorities in China. The brothers have Cambodian citizenship.

In an Aug 15 notice, the police in China urged the nine to return to the country, saying that if they did so voluntarily before Oct 10, 2023, they may be granted leniency.

The others on the list of wanted people allegedly include Vang, who the Singapore police said is closely associated with two of the 10 accused – Su Haijin and Su Baolin.

Online gambling in China grew at an astonishing rate amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2021, the country’s Ministry of Public Security said the police probed more than 17,000 cases of cross-border gambling and arrested over 80,000 suspects in cases that involved more than one trillion yuan in illegal transactions.

It also smashed more than 2,200 online gambling platforms, 1,600 illegal payment platforms and underground banks, and 1,500 gambling promotion platforms that same year.

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