Global China’s Dark Side
September 25, 2023
Global China’s Dark Side
Ivan Franceschini, Ling Li
For decades, scholars have been examining Chinese engagements overseas, exploring for instance China’s involvement with Third World struggles during the Maoist era, the evolution of its foreign aid approaches, cultural diplomacy, diasporic activities, and later, the expansion of foreign investment. Only recently—particularly since the publication of sociologist Ching Kwan Lee’s landmark 2017 book The Specter of Global China—have the various facets been subsumed under the single label of ‘Global China’. But how to define Global China? Finding a definition more precise than ‘China outside China’ is a daunting task, as we are talking about a massive multifaceted phenomenon. In the words of Lee herself, Global China takes
myriad forms, ranging from foreign direct investment, labor export, and multilateral financial institutions for building cross-regional infrastructure to the globalization of Chinese civil society organizations, creation of global media networks, and global joint ventures in higher education, to name just a few examples. (Lee 2017: xiv)
In two later articles, Lee (2022a, 2022b) refined her analysis by suggesting that there are at least three interpretations of ‘Global China’ in circulation. The first is the idea of Global China as policy, referring to China’s expansive official engagements beyond its geographical boundaries and national jurisdiction. The second is Global China as power and has a major focus on grassroots dynamics, asking questions about agency (who?), interest (why?), practice (how?), and consequences (so what?), attending especially to issues of resistance, bargaining, accommodation, appropriation, and adaptations by stakeholders in Chinese engagements overseas. The third approach takes Global China as a method, emphasising the ‘global’ context, conditions, and impetuses of Chinese developments, looking at links between China’s domestic conditions and broader trends.
Beside these three interpretations, we believe it is possible to distinguish also between three layers in current analyses of Global China. Two are quite visible and dominate current discussions. The first, which we call ‘Global China from above’, largely coincides with what Lee frames as ‘policy’ and focuses on the state-led macro, top-down dynamics of China’s international engagements, be they in the realms of geopolitics, geo-economics, international trade, standard-setting, participation in international organisations, and so on. The second is what Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere (2022) have defined as ‘bottom-up global China’, which overlaps with the dynamics that Lee categorises as ‘power’ and includes all sorts of grassroots encounters between Chinese state and nonstate actors and local communities in foreign contexts.
The third, less apparent, and largely overlooked layer is what we call ‘Global China’s underbelly’, in which we include the operations of Chinese organised crime syndicates that have branched out overseas, their underground money flows, and their engagements with foreign counterparts (on these topics see, for instance, Zhang and Chin 2003; Zhang 2008; Chin and Zhang 2015). In this piece, we explore one aspect of this layer: the role of Chinese organised crime in the flourishing online scam industry in Southeast Asia. The article is organised in three parts. In the first, we discuss how the online scam industry experienced a boom in the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the second, we explain how it is possible to do research on such a difficult topic. In the third, we argue that such a study provides several important insights that challenge perceptions of Global China as a unitary whole—for instance, by bringing to light the contradictions between different Chinese state and nonstate actors and complicating our understanding of the role of Chinese criminal syndicates vis-a-vis local societies.
The Online Scam Industry as a Case Study
The online scam industry—which the authors have been researching for the past few years and which will be the subject of a volume forthcoming in 2024 with Verso Books—presents us with a perfect example of Global China’s ‘underbelly’. After an early start in Taiwan in the 1990s with a popular scheme called scratch-card lottery—in which scammers led lottery-ticket buyers to believe they had won and asked them to pay taxes on the prize before collecting—from the early 2000s, scammers turned their attention to victims from mainland China (Tan and Jia 2022). Later in the decade, as law enforcement in both Taiwan and mainland China tightened on online fraud and gambling (Chang 2014), scammers began to move their servers and operations into Southeast Asia, especially Cambodia and the Philippines—two countries that were politically stable and endowed with relatively good infrastructure, which was not the case in other possible destinations in the region such as Laos and Myanmar, and where law enforcement was lax if not outright corrupt.
According to our review of news reports of police raids from that period, these operations were often small in scale and hosted in apartments, villas, and hotel rooms. However, things soon began to change. Although it is difficult to pinpoint an exact moment for this shift, available evidence points to the fact that in the mid to late 2010s these scam operations began to assume industrial dimensions, coalescing into large walled compounds hosting dozens of different companies and occupying space in existing casino complexes. Cambodia became one of the epicentres of this move towards a more consolidated sector, with the coastal city of Sihanoukville quickly becoming the most visible and infamous example of scamming on an industrial scale.
At the same time, as their business thrived, the criminal groups running these operations—in most cases, from mainland China and Taiwan, but also Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam—increasingly resorted to deceptive methods to recruit people to staff their companies, using violence and threats to retain workers and ensure their productivity. Starting around 2018, stories began to emerge on Chinese social media of individuals being smuggled or tricked into the Southeast Asian kingdom to work in scam compounds that they were then not allowed to leave. There were also frequent reports of people being kidnapped off the streets, sold to operators by ‘friends’ and acquaintances, or reluctantly entering the industry due to unserviceable debts. Many people have found their way into the industry knowing what kind of work they will be doing, but others are smuggled or enter the country with improper travel documents and subsequently have their liberty restricted.
It took a while for these stories to make their way into English-language media. One of the earliest instances of English-language reporting is from the northern summer of 2021, when the husband of a Philippine national reported that his wife was being held against her will in a compound in Sihanoukville (Cambodia News English 2021a). The woman had arrived in the city after responding to a job ad posted on Facebook and had immediately had her passport confiscated. Only after the media broke the story was she finally allowed to leave the compound (Cambodia News English 2021b).
The fact that this victim was from the Philippines is no coincidence. While initially most of the compound workers were Chinese citizens, during the pandemic, an increasing number of people from other countries in the region (and beyond) were drawn in. As the border and travel restrictions adopted by the Chinese authorities in early 2020 dried up the flow of new workers coming in through legal channels from mainland China, the criminal groups running scam operations had to look elsewhere for staff. At the same time, Chinese citizens stranded abroad by the pandemic—in many cases, unemployed and experiencing harsh financial conditions after losing their livelihoods—found themselves even more vulnerable, unable to afford the cost of the very limited flights back to China, and badly in need of a way to make a living, no matter what it was.
While Cambodia became the most infamous base of the industry during the Covid-19 pandemic, the existence of such operations all over Southeast Asia has now been well documented—as well as Cambodia, today the Philippines, Myanmar, and Laos mostly drive the news—and beyond, as far away as the United Arab Emirates and Georgia. Online scams experienced such a boom during the pandemic years that journalists began talking about a ‘scamdemic’ centred on Southeast Asia (Faulder 2022).
The scale of the industry can be glimpsed from global police data. In the Sinophone world, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security reported that in 2022 the country’s police solved 464,000 cases of telecommunications and online fraud, many of which were perpetrated from Southeast Asia—an increase of 5 per cent compared with the same period in 2021 (Xinhua Baoye Wang 2023). In Hong Kong, financial losses from cryptocurrency-related scams doubled to more than 1.7 billion HKD (roughly 216 million USD) in 2022, with the scams accounting for more than half of the 3.2 billion HKD conned out of Hong Kong citizens in nearly 23,000 reports of technology crimes (Lo 2023). In Taiwan, in August 2022, national police reported that 13,301 cases of fraud had been recorded in the first half of the year, amounting to a total loss of 4.1 billion NTD (roughly 130 million USD), which was expected to exceed 6 billion NTD by the end of the year (Li et al. 2022).
Data coming from Southeast Asia are equally alarming. According to Singaporean police, in 2022, Singaporean citizens lost more than 660 million SGD (488 million USD) to scams, with most victims young adults aged between 20 and 39 (Chua 2023). The real boom, however, occurred in 2021, when 630 million SGD was lost—2.5 times more than the previous year—with at least 90 per cent of these scams originating from overseas and perpetrated by ‘syndicated, well resourced, and technologically sophisticated’ scammers (Sun and Lim 2022). In total, Singaporean citizens lost almost 1 billion USD to scammers in barely two years. In May 2022, official sources in Thailand estimated that scam calls had increased by 270 per cent and fraudulent SMS messages by more than 50 per cent in 2021, with almost 50,000 complaints lodged—twice as many as the previous year (Faulder 2022). According to Thai police, 800 Thai citizens are scammed every day and, according to Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, Thai nationals lost more than 39 billion THB (1.1 billion USD) to cyber scams that were reported between March 2022 and July 2023 (Pattaya Mail 2023).
It has been well documented how fraud originating from Southeast Asia has also targeted people far beyond the region. In one remarkable instance, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on an Australian woman duped into investing in fake cryptocurrency (Patty 2022). After realising she had been defrauded, she confronted the scammer, who confessed to being a 20-year-old trapped in a scam operation run from a compound in Cambodia. He told her that his bosses would punish him for poor performance and that he needed 300,000 RMB (roughly 63,000 USD) to be released. Stories such as this bring us back to how the ‘scamdemic’ takes a significant toll not only on the individuals who fall prey to scammers and lose their life savings but also on many of the scammers themselves.
Evidence has been mounting that today there are possibly hundreds of thousands of people working in hundreds of scam operations in Southeast Asia and beyond (OHCHR 2023). Many operate in conditions amounting to modern slavery. While some enter the industry willingly in the hope of making money, many others do not. Regardless of how people find their way into the compounds, frequently they are not allowed to leave without paying a substantial fee—often referred to as a ‘ransom’ by rescuers and anti-trafficking groups—reportedly sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. There is overwhelming evidence that torture, violence, and brutality are ubiquitous within many of these operations. Rescues are sporadic at best, mostly because of the complicity of local officials, protection of local elites, and the mobile nature of the industry, which, to make things worse, is in some cases located in remote areas or even conflict zones.
While the bulk of these workers come from mainland China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan, reports of South Asians being duped into scam work have also emerged, and people from as far away as Africa and Latin America are also known to be present in Southeast Asian scam compounds. The situation is so dramatic that over the past year the websites of several countries’ embassies prominently featured travel advisories warning their citizens to beware of jobs ads promising high salaries for vaguely described online work in the region.
Investigating the Online Scam Industry
Modern slavery in the online scam industry is a difficult—and often dangerous—subject to study. Scam compounds are heavily guarded and inaccessible to outsiders, the criminal groups running them are tech savvy, and survivors can be deeply traumatised and often live in fear, even after they get out. However, as the abundance of media reports on the subject and our own experience demonstrate, there are ways to research these operations and the galaxy of actors who revolve around them.
The first source of information are the testimonies of survivors. These men and women are not easy to approach for at least two reasons. First, locating and physically accessing them can be complicated, as they often live for extended periods in very precarious situations (for instance, in shelters) or are held in immigration detention as they wait to be repatriated. Second, it can be extremely difficult to gain their trust, as in many cases they have been tricked into the compounds by friends, associates, or even relatives, after which they may have been subjected to all sorts of violence. Yet, despite everything they have been through, some of these survivors are eager to share their stories. Most choose to remain under the radar—after all, many find themselves penniless and paperless in a foreign country, unable to speak either English or the local language—but some go on to play a role in assisting fellow victims and taking part in informal rescue operations run by local and international civil society groups, becoming ‘survivor leaders’ (Li 2023).
A second source of information are the instant messaging apps, online job advertisement platforms, and social media platforms that criminal groups utilise to recruit people into their operations. It is surprising how much information is out there for those who know where to look. In our research, we mostly focused on four platforms: WeChat; Telegram; Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok; and Jiandanwang, a forum predominantly used by Chinese nationals in Cambodia.
More specifically, we used Telegram to follow conversations among individuals involved in the scam industry and human trafficking. We joined several chat groups managed by people in the scam industry that, surprisingly, are open to the public. Some were for jobseekers where scam companies advertised jobs; in others, members shared scam phrasebooks and techniques; in yet others, brokers posted their prices for selling and reselling people of different nationalities to online scam companies. We used WeChat mostly to examine the online activity of Chinese actors linked to the compounds, reviewing the material they posted on their feeds and then cross-checking it with other sources available on the web. Finally, we monitored Douyin and Jiandanwang, on the lookout for information about scam operations posted by anonymous whistleblowers. While of uncertain provenance, these posts often included details about individual compounds, such as satellite images of or information about the operation’s inner workings shared by survivors. Although this type of information is often difficult to verify, these sources proved invaluable in pointing us in the right direction.
A third fundamental source is Chinese-language media based in Southeast Asia, which often reports on issues related to the online scam industry. These are complemented by several bloggers, YouTubers, and influencers of various types who use their platforms to share stories of people trapped in the compounds. These stories in some cases have moralistic undertones and there is no lack of victim-shaming; there is a widespread perception—sometimes present even among those involved in rescue operations—that survivors often end up in the compounds due to naivety or greed and therefore ‘had it coming’; nonetheless, these voices are invaluable to those seeking to understand what is happening within the scam compounds.
There is one further set of sources that can give us a glimpse into the world of the political and economic elites who control or profit from the scam compounds. These include the personal social media pages of businesspeople and elite actors, where they often flaunt their attendance at public events linked to companies that we know to be connected to online scam operations, such as ground-breaking ceremonies and openings of hotels or casinos, as well as private gatherings held by other notorious figures. Then there are the websites and social media accounts of local state actors, where they occasionally display their interactions with companies known to be linked to criminal actors, including publishing photos of cash or in-kind donations they make to state-aligned philanthropic associations. Finally, there are local business registers that can reveal unexpected links in records of ownership and boards of directors. Cyber Scam Monitor (CSM 2023a)—an anonymous project that maps compounds and the actors behind them—reviews exactly this type of information to produce detailed profiles of known scam compounds. This initiative was evidently not appreciated by the industry and, in July 2023, the website was taken down by what it described as a ‘massive and sustained’ distributed denial of service hack (CSM 2023b).
What Insights Can We Gather from This Type of Research?
One of the most striking things we have come to appreciate from researching this industry is the extraordinary ingenuity and dynamism of these organised crime groups. The very nature of the industry means that it must stay a step ahead of law enforcement, anticipating and reacting to political shifts, while at every stage maximising profits. Complex chains of Chinese and regional recruiters, people-smugglers, brokers, scam operators, property managers, and landlords, working across borders, have created formidable logistics networks, coopting elite actors, more often than not evading law enforcement, and extracting billions of dollars from their victims. Beyond the physical operations, the industry also involves sophisticated networks that move funds around, converting and cycling cryptocurrencies between wallets to obscure their source and launder the scam proceeds (TRM Labs 2023).
Focusing our gaze on the online scam industry—and, more broadly, the layer that we call ‘Global China’s underbelly’—also provides us with several insights into how to understand Global China today. Returning to Ching Kwan Lee’s original categorisation of Global China as policy, power, and method, researching scam operations run by Chinese organised crime overseas yields some lessons that are relevant for all three dimensions.
First, a glance at the industry challenges some assumptions that are typical of the ‘policy’ approach. Fuelled by geopolitical tensions, in recent years, the policy dimension has assumed overwhelming preponderance in media discourses about Global China. The policy approach to Global China, however, puts an excessive emphasis on the Party-State. In discussions of the online scam industry, this has led to the proliferation of portrayals of these operations as a by-product or even a part of the Chinese Government’s activities overseas, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For instance, a common misconception is that human trafficking and online scam activities in Sihanoukville are centred on the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ)—a core BRI project in the country—apparently only because the scam compounds and the SSEZ are both Chinese and located in the same province. This confusion is only partly justified by the fact that some shady Chinese figures involved in the online scam industry have tried to claim cover under the BRI mantle, in at least one case triggering an uncharacteristically public rebuttal by the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar (Cheng 2022).
By researching online scam operations, however, one realises what should otherwise already be obvious: the Chinese Party-State is far from the omnipotent actor it is often purported to be, not everything linked to China abroad is part of the BRI, and different Chinese actors can have very different, even conflicting, agendas. For instance, in the case of the online scam industry, Chinese law enforcement has for years been tracking the organised crime groups behind it, both within China and abroad, leading to numerous arrests. However, relatively few key players have been apprehended and returned to China. This likely points to both China’s reluctance to expend political capital in demanding the arrest of individuals with connections to local political heavyweights and the limitations of the Chinese State’s ability to overcome local elite interests and the protection they provide to wanted individuals. It is certainly no coincidence, for example, that many of the Chinese individuals behind scam compounds in Southeast Asia have acquired Cambodian citizenship, which not only facilitates ownership of property, but may also come with a new name, as well as visa-free travel in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries, an extra level of obfuscation, and perhaps protection (CSM 2023c).
Second, from the perspective of ‘power’, the scam compounds provide us with a unique perspective on grassroots interactions between Chinese actors and local stakeholders. By looking into the inner workings of these operations and paying attention to the relations not only between gangsters and victims, but also among victims themselves and among victims and their rescuers, we can gather valuable insights into the conditions of Chinese migrants overseas. Also, by situating the scam compounds within the local context and examining their relations with both local communities and host-country elites, up to senior levels of government, we can dispel the misconception of these structures as a solely parasitic external body, highlighting instead how the agency of local actors plays a fundamental role in enabling and sustaining them.
Finally, from the perspective of ‘method’, studying the industry allows us to properly situate the scam compounds within global trends rather than framing them as something uniquely ‘Chinese’. Emphasising the Chinese component of the industry overlooks systemic factors that have led the sector to shift from scattered operations in hotel rooms and apartments to huge compounds where scams are conducted on an industrial scale by a workforce composed at least partly of people under conditions resembling modern slavery. Moreover, even though available evidence indicates that crime syndicates from mainland China and Taiwan play a dominant role in them, labelling these operations ‘Chinese’ overlooks how these realities proliferate thanks to the involvement of a broad array of actors, including local stakeholders and other regional criminal actors.
For instance, Cyber Scam Monitor has documented the involvement not just of Chinese businessmen, but also of Cambodian government senators, a range of investors from Myanmar, individuals linked to Hong Kong triads, and Macau gambling kingpins (CSM n.d.). In Myanmar, the industry has close ties to armed groups, including the notorious case of Yatai New City in Shwe Kokko, which is a joint venture between a Hong Kong–registered company and the military-aligned Karen Border Guard Force (Cheng 2022). In northern Myanmar, the industry thrives in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups, especially those administered by the Kokang Border Guard Force (Nanda 2020; Frontier Myanmar 2022). Chinese crime groups also work with their regional peers, indigenous recruiters, and people-traffickers in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, who play an important role in feeding labour into the compounds. As noted earlier, workers are being drawn from across the region, and Vietnamese, Thai, and Indonesian scam and online gambling operators are also active across Cambodia.
All this hints to the fact that, far from being parasitic entities in the otherwise healthy body of a foreign society, Chinese syndicates depend on the cooperation and collusion of a host of local stakeholders, from powerful elites to grassroots actors. Principally, these crime groups are opportunistic and operate wherever the environment allows, taking advantage of the complicity of local actors and the laxness or absence of local law enforcement. If we identify the scam operations simply as ‘Chinese’, we not only lose sight of the fundamentally transnational and local dimensions of the compounds and ignore broader structural issues, but also racialise them, fuelling discrimination and misunderstanding, including against those individuals from mainland China who have the misfortune of ending up trapped in the industry.
Beyond Global China
As discussed at the beginning of this essay, to date, much of the Global China discourse has focused on the macrolevel, which we called ‘Global China from above’, with increased attention paid in recent years to the local agency and grassroots interactions that compose what has been described as ‘bottom-up Global China’. With this intervention, we point to the existence of a further layer that is less well understood: the organised crime networks that make up Global China’s ‘underbelly’.
While its dynamics have received less attention, studying this layer is not only possible, but also vital. Acknowledging the existence of these realities and examining their dynamics fundamentally challenge our understanding of ‘Global China’ as a unitary concept, highlighting the framework’s limitations in accounting for the fragmentation and competing interests of the actors who usually fall under this term. More importantly, far from being a purely academic pursuit, this endeavour has very practical implications for the uncountable numbers of victims who fall prey to these syndicates. In the case of the online scam industry, it is crucial that all concerned stakeholders—including civil society organisations, the media, scholars, law enforcement, and policymakers—develop a better understanding of the sector, the actors who drive it, and those who enable it, for the sake of the countless individuals who end up trapped in the scam compounds.
A different version of this article first appeared in Italian in the journal Orizzonte Cina. The authors wish to thank Sijia Zhong for her valuable help with this research and Neil Loughlin, Christian Sorace, Nicholas Loubere, Diego Gullotta, and Simone Dossi for their feedback on earlier drafts of the article.
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