BANGKOK: In a startling tale of human desperation and criminal manipulation, Zhang Hongliang, a former restaurant manager in central China, became ensnared in a complex web of cyber scams after losing his job during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zhang’s story is not unique; tens of thousands of people, both Chinese and non-Chinese, have fallen prey to cyber scam networks operated by powerful Chinese criminal syndicates in Southeast Asia.
Deceptive Job Offer Turns Nightmare
Zhang’s ordeal began in March when he received a job offer to teach Chinese cooking at a restaurant. Excited to provide for his family, he eagerly accepted the offer, only to find himself in a cyber scam compound in Myanmar. His new role was not as a cooking instructor but as a pawn in a scheme to lure Chinese individuals into fake investment schemes via social media platforms.
A Widespread Problem
While regional and Chinese authorities have managed to apprehend thousands of individuals in crackdowns, they struggle to dismantle the local elites and criminal networks that sustain these schemes. This persistent issue has become an embarrassment for Beijing and has instilled fear among ordinary Chinese travelers visiting Southeast Asia, concerned that they might fall victim to a cyber scam operation.
Exploitative Tactics and Physical Punishments
Young people, in particular, are often lured to places in countries like Cambodia or Myanmar with promises of high-paying jobs, only to find themselves forced into fraudulent activities. According to rescue organizations, individuals ensnared in these scams are regularly subjected to physical punishments, such as beatings and forced labor, if they fail to meet their quotas.
A Cross-Border Effort to Combat Cyber Scams
In an attempt to address the issue, China, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar established a joint police operations center in August to combat cyber scams in the region. On October 10, China’s Ministry of Public Security reported a successful operation, bringing back 2,317 scam suspects from northern Myanmar to China. However, some experts argue that many of these so-called “suspects” are, in fact, victims who were coerced into working for the criminals.
Link to China’s Belt and Road Initiative
These scam operations often have close ties to local elites and organized crime, particularly in areas where China has financed significant construction projects through the Belt and Road Initiative. These regions, such as Myanmar’s border areas, have historically attracted criminals due to lax law enforcement.
Digital Romance Scams
The cyber scam syndicates are known for their “pig butchering” cons, where they lure victims into investing their money in bogus schemes through digital romances. Using scripts, images of models and influencers, and translation software, these criminals target victims worldwide, dividing them into two categories: Chinese and non-Chinese.
A Sustained Effort Required
While China has made efforts to combat the issue, enforcement actions in Southeast Asia appear inadequate. The groups that initially operated in Cambodia moved to less policed areas in Myanmar after Cambodia’s crackdown on online gambling rings in 2019. Experts stress the need for a sustained effort to root out these criminal networks.
In the midst of this ongoing struggle, Zhang Hongliang has returned to China and shared his story to raise awareness about the risks associated with cyber scams. His journey is a stark reminder of the challenges faced by those who venture into Southeast Asia and the importance of continuing efforts to combat these criminal networks.
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