Chinese criminal syndicates operating cyber scam networks in Southeast Asia continue to flourish, despite efforts by regional and Chinese authorities to crack down on these illegal activities. Zhang Hongliang, a former restaurant manager, fell victim to one such scam after losing his job during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, he was lured into a cyber scam compound in Myanmar under the false pretense of teaching Chinese cooking. Instead, he was ordered to deceive fellow Chinese citizens into investing in fake schemes through social media platforms.
The scale of these cyber scams is significant, with tens of thousands of people, mostly Chinese, becoming ensnared in these networks. While authorities have managed to apprehend thousands of individuals involved in these scams, experts argue that they have failed to dismantle the local elites and criminal networks that sustain these operations. Shutting down scam operations in one location often leads to their resurfacing elsewhere, posing a challenge for law enforcement.
The prevalence of cyber scams in Southeast Asia has become an embarrassment for Beijing and has deterred ordinary Chinese citizens from traveling to the region due to fears of falling victim to these schemes or being kidnapped. Reports have revealed instances of individuals being lured to countries like Cambodia or Myanmar with promises of high-paying jobs, only to be forced into scamming activities. Victims often face physical abuse and punishments if they fail to perform well.
In an attempt to address the issue, China, Thailand, and Myanmar established a joint police operations center in August to combat cyber scams in the region. As part of their efforts, China’s Ministry of Public Security recently announced the successful repatriation of 2,317 scam suspects from northern Myanmar. However, experts question the treatment of these individuals upon their return to China, as many of them are considered victims coerced into working for the criminals.
The cyber scam networks in countries like Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia operate under the collaboration of Chinese bosses and local elites. These networks often thrive in areas where China has invested in major construction projects through the Belt and Road Initiative. Myanmar’s border regions, known for lax law enforcement, have historically attracted criminal activities, including drug production and trafficking.
The syndicates behind these scams are notorious for employing various tactics, including “pig butchering” cons and digital romances, to deceive their targets into investing money in fraudulent schemes. Victims can be located anywhere in the world. Experts have identified links between these criminals and Chinese state enterprises, think tanks, and government officials.
Zhang Hongliang managed to escape the scam compound in Myanmar and returned to China after his family helped him pay off his debt to the scammer. He has been sharing his story on Douyin (Chinese version of TikTok) to raise awareness about the risks associated with cyber scams. China has detained around 4,000 suspects and repatriated them back to the country.