A group of 109 Chinese nationals allegedly involved in a telecom fraud operation in northern Myanmar were handed over to Chinese police on Saturday, Chinese state media reported, the latest in a series of publicized deportations of criminals from the Southeast Asian nations bordering southern China.
According to China Daily, the suspects were deported from Mong Pawk, a town in eastern Shan State under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a rebel group with which Beijing has longstanding ties.
The handover of suspects from Myanmar is the latest sign of intensified cooperation between Chinese law enforcement agencies and their counterparts across mainland Southeast Asia to address the alarming boom in transnational crime, particularly cyber and telecom scams and human trafficking. The past month has seen a raft of similar deportations from regions abutting China. According to China Daily, which cited statistics from China’s Ministry of Public Security, 1,482 suspects involved in telecom fraud in northern Myanmar have been handed over to Chinese authorities.
In the first week of September, the UWSA, working in coordination with Chinese police, repatriated 1,207 suspects to China, including 41 who were wanted for previous crimes inside China, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported. This came after Singaporean authorities last month arrested 10 Chinese individuals in conjunction with a massive money laundering scheme linked to casinos in Cambodia and the Philippines. During the raid, Voice of America reported, “authorities seized close to three quarters of a billion U.S. dollars in assets including more than 100 luxury condos and dozens of flashy cars.”
The rash of deportations speaks to the magnitude of the criminality that has come to flourish in the interstices of state jurisdictions in mainland Southeast Asia. In July, the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a report about the surge in transnational crime along the middle stretches of the Mekong River. Over the past 15 years, the report states, Shan State in eastern Myanmar and Bokeo province in northern Laos have come to form “a contiguous zone of vibrant criminality, much of it beyond the reach of state authorities.”
Much of this is controlled and driven by Chinese nationals, some of whom have fled similar crimes at home, who have established close and mutually enriching relationships with local powerbrokers. These include local tycoons, government officials, quasi-state authorities like the UWSA, and militia groups allied to the Myanmar military.
This criminal activity runs the full gamut from illegal gambling and money laundering to illicit drug production, human trafficking, and the trade in endangered wildlife products. A recent dire innovation has been the establishment of industrial-scale cyber scam operations, which have seen people from across Asia and even further afield trafficked into scam centers with promises of stable work. They are then forced to use Facebook and Telegram accounts to defraud people with scams, including fake cryptocurrency deals and “pig-butchering” operations, a type of long-term fraud that “combines investment schemes, romance scams and cryptocurrency fraud.”
In a report published last month, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights cited “credible sources” to the effect that at least 120,000 people in Myanmar and at least 100,000 in Cambodia “may be held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams.”
According to China Daily, China and its partners are making “greater efforts… to investigate and tackle such crimes,” and the Ministry of Public Security has “deployed public security officers in Yunnan province to strengthen border law enforcement cooperation with neighboring countries.”
“This has effectively squeezed the living space of overseas criminal groups involved in fraud,” it quoted one ministry official as saying.
In July, Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai met with Than Swe, the foreign minister of Myanmar’s military administration, during which he urged him to work together with neighboring countries to eliminate the online gambling and scam centers operating in the border regions.
While remaining publicly opposed to these various illegal activities, China’s attitude toward them in practice has been complex, reflecting both the attenuated lines of authority linking Beijing and the southern border and China’s broader strategic interests in mainland Southeast Asia. The latter require productive relations with many of the groups hosting and/or profiting from these criminal activities, while the presence of Chinese criminal actors in these regions has provided Beijing with the pretext to deepen its security presence in mainland Southeast Asia, particularly in the loosely-regulated borderlands of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. All of this has created an incentive to crack down on criminal operations linked to Chinese nationals – but only so far.
As Zachary Abuza argued this week in an article for RFA, the recent wave of deportations reflects the “reputational and diplomatic costs” that China’s government has sustained due to the increasing revelations about Chinese criminal scam operations.
But Beijing’s crackdown has been geographically concentrated. While the UWSA has deported a large number of Chinese nationals, criminal scam compounds run by the Myanmar army’s in Kokang remain untouched by the crackdown, as do those in Shwe Kokko in Karen State close to the Chinese border, which is under the control of a Border Guard Force militia allied to the Myanmar armed forces.
While Beijing probably has ample influence to force the closure of these operations, it is unwilling to expend its political capital with local powerbrokers such as the UWSA, one of the main mediums of Chinese influence in Shan State. It is similarly unclear whether it has the political will, or even the ability, to lean on its allies in the halls of power in Laos and Cambodia, both of which have been linked to alleged scam operations and other illegal activities run by Chinese nationals.
For example, scam compounds in Cambodia have been credibly connected to prominent tycoons in close proximity to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, while Chinese nationals have established intimate relationships with high-ranking politicians, up to and including former Prime Minister Hun Sen. (As RFA reported, nine of those arrested in last month’s money laundering bust in Singapore last month were Chinese nationals who had been granted Cambodian citizenship during the past five years.)
In his commentary, Abuza predicted that China’s response to these operations would continue to be conditioned by its political and strategic interests.
“What seems more likely is that China will act selectively,” he wrote. “Beijing wants to garner diplomatic praise when it does take action, while bolstering its influence with regional security services.” Beyond that, there is little reason to believe that this welcome crackdown marks the beginning of the end for the scam-masters of Southeast Asia.