China remains vigilant against various forms of illegal activities and actively cracks down on them
After China opened its economy last year, ending its zero Covid policy, an old problem has roared back with a vengeance. Chinese authorities are grappling with the issue of their citizens operating fraudulent schemes from Southeast Asian countries, targeting mainland Chinese residents.
China has a history of collaborating with organised crime syndicates in places like Australia, Canada, and Taiwan, employing criminal groups to achieve political objectives. However, the increasing prevalence of telecom fraud and human trafficking in Myanmar and the Golden Triangle area is now adversely affecting Chinese citizens.
What has been described as ‘scamdemic’ encompasses a series of illicit activities, including human trafficking and online scams. The epicentre of these activities lies in Cambodia and the Golden Triangle area, which overlaps Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos and is notorious for illicit opium production and other criminal activities.
Global threat of human trafficking
Cambodia, particularly Sihanoukville, has long been known as a hub for Chinese nationals engaging in illicit activities, including gambling. However, these scams originating in Cambodia have now reached industrial scale, deterring Chinese tourists from visiting this once-preferred destination.
In June, Interpol issued a warning about online scam centres operating from Cambodia, with networks extending into Laos and Myanmar.
Interpol noted that initially, victims of human trafficking primarily came from Chinese-speaking regions such as China, Malaysia, Thailand, or Singapore. However, victims are now drawn from as far away as Europe and South America, with even Indian nationals falling prey to job scams in Southeast Asian countries.
“What began as a regional crime threat has become a global human trafficking crisis,” said Jürgen Stock, Secretary-General of Interpol.
Interpol is not the only organisation sounding the alarm. In August, the United Nations reported that over 1,00,000 people were trafficked into Cambodia, and 1,20,000 into Myanmar.
In recent months, the Chinese Public Security Bureau has conducted a large-scale crackdown on the scam centres, which appear to have tacit support from the governments in Cambodia and Myanmar.
The Ministry of Public Security has said that it has “intensified the fight against telecom and online fraud” in the “Northern Myanmar and the Golden Triangle, an area that comprises parts of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, are two major hiding places of the fraudsters”.
“Since the beginning of this year, the ministry has dispatched teams to countries including the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos for cooperation on international law enforcement, with severe crackdowns on telecom fraud and human trafficking,” said an article in China Daily. The report was subsequently published on the website of China’s Supreme People’s Court.
China’s international security
In a recent joint operation, Chinese police, in collaboration with local law enforcement in Myanmar, shut down approximately 11 dens operating fraudulent schemes. The bust resulted in the arrest of 269 suspects, including 189 Chinese nationals.
In a separate action, China’s Ministry of Public Security launched a massive crackdown on telecom scams in Northern Myanmar, resulting in the transfer of 1,207 suspects from Myanmar to Chinese law enforcement authorities in Yunnan. These suspects were apprehended in connection with telecom fraud cases affecting Chinese citizens.
While improved relations between China and Myanmar have allowed Chinese public security agencies to conduct policing activities more effectively in the country, challenges remain.
Interestingly, there is even a new Chinese blockbuster movie titled No More Bets, released in 2023, which educates people about the dangers of being lured into jobs in Southeast Asia and getting ensnared in networks of fraudsters. The film tells the story of a Chinese model and a computer programmer who are promised high-salary jobs overseas but end up becoming part of a trafficking network that forces Chinese nationals to work for an online fraud scheme. The movie has been a sensational hit, grossing over $500 million in its first month and drawing attention to the issue of human trafficking.
As domestic economic prospects fray, Chinese nationals are increasingly seeking opportunities in Southeast Asia for investment and employment. However, they often find themselves entangled in a web of scams in politically unstable regions, where their fellow compatriots lure them into illicit activities.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative is a policy tool aimed at expanding China’s influence in the realm of human and national security beyond its immediate borders. The crackdown in Cambodia and Myanmar serves as an example of how China can leverage its security institutions to achieve specific objectives, highlighting China’s growing clout in the region.
With significant economic challenges at home, Xi is keen to project strength in addressing large-scale fraud activities that harm Chinese nationals. Thus, this crackdown represents a display of power on an unprecedented scale in the Southeast Asia region.
In the realm of high-table diplomacy, it is often easy to forget that people are the true drivers of geopolitical influence. Southeast Asia has emerged as a backyard for China’s externalised power projection and a destination for its citizens seeking new opportunities.
The crackdown on ‘scamdemic’ illustrates that China is willing to use its externalised policing authority to address domestic issues on a scale never seen before, thereby expanding the reach of Chinese public security institutions.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)