Chinese criminals running amok across borders, operating scam networks worth billions

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Last month, Myanmar handed over a whopping 31,000 telecom fraud suspects, including financiers and ring leaders of crime syndicates, to China. These suspects had apparently cheated Chinese citizens of large sums of money.

In recent past, a mushrooming of Chinese criminal syndicates has been reported in Myanmar and other nations. These organized criminal groups have been pushed out of China by Chinese authorities and are now operating in bordering Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. These syndicates use industrial-scale call centre bases across Southeast Asia for various fraud operations, including romance investment scams, crypto fraud, money laundering, illegal gambling, and drugs and human trafficking.

The trafficked people are primarily men, who are then forced to run these online scams amid inhumane conditions. Of all the places, Myanmar has emerged as the place of choice for most of these Chinese criminals.

Turning victims into criminals

The modus operandi is simple: Chinese criminal gangs offer attractive jobs to young, unemployed people, who are asked to come to Myanmar. On arrival, the traffickers take possession of their passports, mobile phones, etc. The men are then taken to gated compounds, manned by heavily armed security guards.

There, these migrant workers are coerced into targeting their fellow countrymen with fake investments, fictional romances, or cash transfers to fake police officers and pyramid investment schemes. These fraudulent operations gained unprecedented momentum amid the covid-19 pandemic, as lakhs of people lost their jobs and businesses shut down. So, while earlier these criminal gangs preyed on less-educated people, they are now targeting victims with professional jobs, even those with graduate or post-graduate degrees.

For instance, Zhang Hongliang, a former restaurant manager in central China, who lost his job during the pandemic, was offered to teach Chinese cooking at a restaurant. He scraped together 40,000 yuan ($5,472) to make the trip. He ended up in a cyber scam compound in Myanmar. There, he was forced to lure Chinese nationals into giving up their savings for fake investment schemes. One night, he slipped away, swam across the Moei River into Thailand, and turned himself in to Thai police.

Massive operations, dire consequences

These scam operations are literally massive. According to the available data, as many as 120,000 people are currently working in these scam rooms of Myanmar and at least 100,000 in Cambodia. Similar scam zones are operating in Thailand and the Philippines as well.

The victims/employees come from across Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as well as South Asia, East Africa, Egypt, Turkey and even Brazil, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Reportedly, these scammers are estimated to be generating $7.5-12.5 billion, in just one southeast country. This is half the value of that country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The most popular scam has been named “pig-butchering”, wherein the criminals cultivate fake romantic relationships or friendships online and then defraud the victims of significant amounts of money. This scam sometimes has extreme repercussions, such as in the case of Goi Zhen Feng. The 23-year-old teacher departed from Malaysia for Bangkok in January last year to meet his online “girlfriend”. His body was recovered from the Thai town of Mae Sot, bordering Myanmar, a few months later in May.

China’s role

According to analysts, China’s role is two-fold: It is mostly the Chinese nationals who are running these operations. And most of the victims are Chinese nationals, too. These operations primarily run on Chinese borders and are helmed by Chinese bosses hand-in-hand with local elites. Many are based in places where China has financed big construction projects, through President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In fact, according to some experts, these criminals have “ridden on the shoulders of the BRI” and links have been reported between the criminals and Chinese state enterprises, think tanks and government officials. So obviously, Chinese authorities have turned a blind eye to them for years.

Now, other countries are pressuring China to act against these scam networks. Consequently, Chinese law enforcement agencies have stepped up their cooperation with other nations to address this scourge of transnational crime. In August this year, China, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar agreed to set up a joint police operations centre to tackle cyber scams. In October, China announced that its “Summer Operation” had successfully brought back 2,317 scam suspects from northern Myanmar to China. In total, China has detained some 4,000 suspects.

According to academics, People's Liberation Army (PLA), the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), might also be planning to cross the border and attack hostile forces to tackle this menace in northern Myanmar. The area, which mainly houses ethnic minorities, has maintained a relative autonomy from the Myanmese government, and has its own armed forces.

Some experts, however, opine that China is acting selectively. Reportedly, Beijing is taking action only on those syndicates that are primarily preying on Chinese nationals. Also, when operations are shut down in one place, they often just resurface elsewhere, causing embarrassment for Beijing. That is why, China has been involved in crackdowns on some of these networks for about two decades now. Yet, the menace continues. Then there is the problem of China calling the caught people “suspects”, even though they are victims.

Consequently, thousands of those trapped in these scam compounds are getting more desperate by the minute. Trafficked workers, especially from other countries like Thailand, are unsure whether China will free them.

Copyright Greekcitytimes 2024