BANGKOK (AP) — Zhang Hongliang, a former restaurant manager in central China, took various gigs in and out of China to support his family after losing his job during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In March, a job offer teaching Chinese cooking at a restaurant led him to a cyber scam compound in Myanmar, where he was instead instructed to lure Chinese people to give up their savings for a bogus investment scheme via social media platforms.
Zhang is one of thousands of people, most but not all Chinese, who have fallen prey to cyber scam networks run by powerful Chinese criminal syndicates in Southeast Asia. Regional and Chinese authorities have netted thousands in a crackdown, but experts say they are failing to root out the local elites and criminal networks that are bound to carry out the schemes.
When scam operations stop in one place they often re-emerge elsewhere. The issue is an embarrassment for Beijing and is discouraging ordinary Chinese from traveling to Southeast Asia for fear they could be defrauded or kidnapped and caught up in cyber scam operations.
In recent years, media reports have uncovered young men being lured to high-paying jobs in Cambodia or Myanmar, only to be forced to work as con men. Rescue organizations say people regularly face beatings or corporal punishment such as being forced to run laps if they don’t perform well.
In August, China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar agreed to set up a joint police operations center to combat cybercrimes in the region. On October 10, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced that its “Summer Operation” had successfully returned 2,317 scam suspects from northern Myanmar to China.
The ministry announced on Tuesday that it had nabbed 387 “important leaders and backbone” criminals of the cyber scam syndicate as of the end of September. It was clear how many were from foreign-based criminal gangs versus domestic gangs.
China calls such people suspects, although experts say most of them are victims who were forced to work for criminals. They question how they will be treated back in China.
Schemes based in countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are run by Chinese bosses working hand-in-hand with local elites. Many are located in places where China has funded major construction projects through President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
Myanmar’s border regions have long been a magnet for criminals – including historically drug producers and traffickers – due to lax law enforcement. Such places are usually under the control of ethnic minority armed groups, either in opposition to or allied with Myanmar’s central government. Some cooperate with organized crime syndicates.
“From the vantage point of the Chinese government, it’s very embarrassing that you have a lot of these Chinese criminals operating across Southeast Asia,” said Jason Tower, an expert on transnational crime at the United States Institute of Peace.
Syndicates are also known for “pig butchering” losses, where scammers lure individuals, often halfway around the world, into investing their money in bogus schemes after being tricked into digital romance.
Scammers divide their targets into two categories: Chinese and non-Chinese. They use scripts, models and images of influencers and translation software to share their meaning with whom they communicate over the phone or online. Hunting can be anywhere in the world.
Criminals are “riding on the shoulders of the Belt and Road Initiative,” said Tower, who outlined connections between criminals and Chinese state institutions, think tanks and government officials in a 2020 report written for the United States Institute of Peace.
Zhang was working in Thailand and rushed to Laos with a visa when he met the man who lured him to the scam compound in Myanmar. Going by what he said was his last name, Gao, he claimed to be a broker and travel agent for Chinese living in Thailand. Zhang and his wife wanted extra money for in vitro fertilization to have another child. Gao suggested that he go to work in Mayawaddy, Kayin State in eastern Myanmar, teaching a local chef how to cook Chinese food at Gao’s new restaurant. The salary will be double that of Zhang in China.
Zhang was cautious. Since a coup in 2021, military-controlled Myanmar has been mired in civil war. But Gao assured him that he would not do anything illegal and said that the restaurant would have a lot of customers as many cyber scam businesses operate in the area.
This may have raised a red flag but it was only once he arrived in Myanmar that Zhang realized his predicament. He asks to return home citing a family emergency. His family helped him scrape together about 40,000 yuan ($5,472) Gao claimed he owed him, and he swam one night across the Moi River to Thailand, where he turned himself in to Thai police, who contacted Chinese Embassy.
Zhang showed the AP copy of his deportation notice from Thai immigration police and a temporary ID card. He returned to China in late June and was questioned by Chinese police but not detained. She’s sharing her story on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, to warn others of the risks, and says people often contact her about relatives caught up in cyber scam compounds.
“We all went out with this wonderful sense of hope, but then reality hit us in the face,” he said.
In total, China detained about 4,000 suspects and returned them to China.
The Ministry of Public Security claimed “breakthrough results” from the operation in coordination with Myanmar authorities. On Monday, they announced that they had repatriated another 2,349 people. The ministry did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
A 31-year-old former chef who was trafficked to Myanmar’s Wa state earlier this year said he watched his company hand over four men to Chinese police with little fanfare in September. Other organizations did the same, said the man, who was trafficked to Myanmar and later rescued by a nonprofit organization. He declined to be named for fear of government reprisals, and The Associated Press could not independently verify his account.
Overall, the enforcement measures do not appear to be very comprehensive, experts say. The groups now based in Myanmar were originally based in Cambodia. When Cambodia cracked down on online gambling rings and illegal casinos in 2019, many groups moved to less-policed areas in Myanmar. Some are occupied by rival gangs.
China’s efforts to repair its image have so far not made much progress, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University.
“You can crack down on these symptoms and manifestations … that you see in border areas,” he said, “but if you don’t really make a sustained effort, they will come back.”
AP researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing and AP writers Grant Peck and Jintamas Saksorchai in Bangkok contributed to this report.