Over the past decade, online scams and fraud emerged as a major problem in China. Starting from pyramid schemes, illegal online gambling and petty scams, they have developed into other sophisticated forms of fraud at an industrial scale. One of the most prevalent is the “fake official” scam, involving swindlers posing as law enforcement officials informing victims that they are under investigation for criminal activities, such as money laundering. They request the victims to cooperate with the investigation by transferring their money to a “safe” account under the control of the authorities.
Another more damaging form of scam is nicknamed “pig butchering” in Chinese. This romance scam aims to trick would-be romantic partners into handing over large sums of money. Scammers approach victims online as friends and seek to build deep and sometimes romantic relationships with the victim over time.
Often presenting themselves as successful investors, they pitch investment schemes to the victims which offer handsome returns. This phase of the scam is called “pig raising.” When the victim finally lets down their guard and commits most of their financial resources, the scammers disappear with the money. This is when “the pig is butchered.”
In most of these scams, as soon as the victims transfer their money to the scammers, it is transferred out of China, making it impossible for authorities to recover their losses.
As China stepped up crackdowns on online fraud in recent years, it has made it increasingly difficult for criminal syndicates to set up scamming hubs in China, forcing many to relocate to Southeast Asia. But as scammers’ primary targets are Chinese or Chinese speakers in other countries, they still need a large number of Chinese-speaking recruits who are not readily available in their new locations. As a solution, criminal syndicates have turned to human trafficking.
As the Chinese government attempts to strengthen law enforcement cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, a large number of criminal syndicates have relocated to northern Myanmar. In Cambodia, known for being a hotbed of cyber scamming, many scam hubs have moved to Myanmar in the past couple of years after authorities started to crack down on cyber scamming.
According to a study on cross-border online fraud in Southeast Asia in 2021 conducted by Ma Zhonghong, a professor from the School of Criminal Investigation with the People’s Public Security University of China in Beijing, and associate professor Zhuang Hua from Guangdong Police College, those operating out of Myanmar make up the largest share of online fraud suspects detained by China’s police forces. The two scholars described northern Myanmar as the “hub of criminal hubs” of online scamming.
Dai Yonghong, a professor from the China Center for South Asian Studies of Sichuan University, told NewsChina that northern Myanmar has become a center for both human trafficking and online scamming because of the proximity to China and long history of political instability.
Since Myanmar declared independence in 1948, much of northern Myanmar, including Kachin State and Shan State which border China, has been under the control of ethnic armed groups. To fund their sporadic conflicts with government forces, these groups have a long history of drug trafficking and illegal gambling. The emerging human trafficking schemes serve as a new source of income.
As Myanmar’s corruption-plagued junta government struggles to maintain political stability, it also lacks both the political will and capacity to crack down on the human trafficking-fueled online scamming industry in the region.
The fact that Myanmar shares a long border, including some 2,000 kilometers with Southwest China’s Yunnan province, a mountainous region with close cultural and ethnic ties to northern Myanmar, makes it extremely difficult for China’s law enforcement authorities to curb cross-border human trafficking.
Given the ever-growing number of victims from China, the Chinese government has stepped up its efforts to increase cooperation with neighboring countries. On March 20, China’s Ministry of Public Security held a trilateral meeting with counterparts in Myanmar and Thailand in Bangkok on combating transnational crimes such as human trafficking and online fraud.
On May 2, in a meeting with Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during his visit to the country, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang stressed that Myanmar’s border areas have long been home to gangs involved in telecommunications and internet fraud, which “have seriously infringed on the interests of Chinese citizens and are abhorred by the Chinese public.” He urged Myanmar authorities to “take concrete measures, coordinate efforts with various departments to continue advancing the China-Myanmar-Thailand joint combat operation, and rescue trapped Chinese nationals in a timely manner.”
On June 6, at the request of Myanmar’s military government, Thailand’s Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA) suspended power supplies to Shwe Kokko, a well-known criminal hub in Myanmar’s Karen State under the control of the Karen Border Guard Force. But as local gangs are equipped with generators, such measures are far from effective in curbing criminal activities.