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Networks of Deception

Tens of thousands of Chinese have been lured by fake job offers to criminal hubs in northern Myanmar and other destinations in Southeast Asia to become ‘cyber slaves,’ as Interpol warns that human trafficking schemes pose a global threat

By Zhang Xinyu Updated Sept.1

In cooperation with police in southwest China’s Yunnan Province and in Wa Special Region 2 of Myanmar, police from Changchun, Northeast China’s Jilin Province, detain suspects in a cross-border telecom fraud case on August 29, 2017. The two crime organizations were charged in 235 cases of fraud throughout China since 2013. Most of the suspects illegally entered Myanmar through the moutainous border with China (Photo by IC)

When delivery rider Chen Chen received a job offer from a childhood friend to work at a casino in an unspecified Southeast Asian country for 30,000 yuan (US$4,150) a month, he was delighted, as it was several times his regular income and would substantially improve the living standard of his family.  

But Chen’s dream of financial prosperity soon became a nightmare. Following the instructions of his friend, whom he had not seen in person for years, Chen first arrived in Guiyang, capital of Guizhou Province in southwestern China. But instead of taking a flight out of China as his friend promised, he was picked up by a car and joined by several other job seekers.  

The car transported them to Yunnan Province before reaching the border with Myanmar, where they were escorted by armed men to another car. Chen and his companions were eventually smuggled to an industrial park in northern Myanmar. Guarded by gunmen in military uniforms, Chen was forced to sign a two-year contract with a scam company for just 3,000 yuan (US$415) a month. Chen’s situation was publicized by his sister, who decided to seek help from the media by revealing details of his situation.  

Chen alleged that he and his colleagues received training in investment fraud and had to work 16 hours a day. They also had to pay for their own food and other necessities, which consumed their salary. When Chen and his colleagues failed to meet quotas, they were subject to torture, including beating, deprivation of sleep and food, and being put into a small cage, Chen claimed. 

Eventually, Chen managed to reach his sister through a messaging app, and told her of his ordeal in Myanmar. Since then, Chen’s sister has been trying everything to get him rescued, she said.  

Just like Chen, 19-year-old Wu Yang was lured to northern Myanmar with a fake job offer. Assigned to work on online gambling schemes targeting Americans, Wu told NewsChina that he had to work a 19-hour shift starting at 10pm. Most of his work involved chatting with American victims through translation apps.  

Wu claimed he was lashed with thorny sticks or beaten with electric batons. But Wu was one of the lucky ones. After a three-month ordeal, Wu and a co-worker were able to escape, climbing out of the windows of the building when the guards left for dinner. Wu said they had no idea where they were and ran as fast as they could toward a populated area. It turned out they were just over the border from China, and after hailing a cab, they reached the nearest border crossing to China within an hour.  

Chen and Wu are among what are thought to be hundreds of thousands of Chinese victims lured by false promises of lucrative job opportunities posted on social networks and recruitment sites, but then are either kidnapped or smuggled to Myanmar, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries. They are imprisoned and coerced to work for crime syndicates as online scammers, swindlers and prostitutes, and are subject to physical punishments or torture if they disobey or underperform. 

‘Hub of Hubs’ 
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. 

Yonghe Land Port bordering Myanmar, Lincang, Yunnan Province, November 30, 2018 (Photo by VCG)

Undated photo of a banner warning against telecom fraud that reads “Northern Myanmar is not a gold rush paradise,” Anxi, Fujian Province (Photo by Xu Tian)

Global Threat 
On June 7, Interpol issued a global warning against human trafficking-fueled fraud, which the international criminal police organization said posed a “double-edged” threat. On the one side, victims are subject to forced labor, as well as “beatings, sexual exploitation, torture, rape and even alleged organ harvesting” in some cases. On the other side, trafficked workers are used to perpetrate a range of online fraud on a second set of victims through schemes including investment fraud, romance scams, and fraud linked to cryptocurrency investing and online gambling.  

Under such a modus operandi, victims of human-trafficking are turned into scammers themselves, which often make them reluctant to seek help. Moreover, these victims-turned-scammers are offered financial rewards or a chance to regain their freedom if they recruit more victims. As a result, many victims resort to actively participating in the scheme to lure their friends, relatives and acquaintances, forming a network which makes it very hard for law enforcement authorities to crack.  

As pandemic lockdowns pushed digitalization and caused higher unemployment, these crimes spread more quickly.  

Issuing an Orange Notice on the trend – a global warning regarding a serious and imminent threat to public safety – Interpol said human-trafficking hubs have spread from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to at least four other unspecified Asian countries.  

As Interpol highlighted, while the initial victims are mostly Chinese nationals, human trafficking gangs are increasingly targeting both Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers from regional countries, including Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Citing a Malaysian victim rescued from Shwe Kokko, Myanmar in December 2022, the Singapore-based Straits Times estimated that there were 1,000 Malaysians still trapped inside the compound where the victims were rescued.  

In February, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs announced they had rescued eight Filipinos who were forced to work as “cyber slaves.” In May, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in a news conference that the Indonesian government has worked on 1,841 human trafficking cases in the past three years mostly involving Indonesians who were duped into online scams. 

Increased Sophistication 
According to Interpol, by employing the latest technologies such as artificial intelligence and large language models like ChatGPT, criminal gangs have dramatically increased the geographic and language diversity, as well as the sophistication of their operations, with victims having been trafficked to regions as far away as South America, East Africa and West Europe. It called for stronger international police cooperation to stop the trend from spreading further.  

On May 10, at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Southeast Asian leaders issued their first declaration on the danger of human trafficking-fueled cyber scams, pledging to take tougher actions against the crime.  

But many are concerned that as long as no effective law enforcement actions can be taken in criminal hubs, like those in northern Myanmar, there is little chance that the crime trend can be reversed, let alone eradicated.  

“The dilemma is that on one hand, given the political instability in northern Myanmar, the Myanmar government has no capability to implement its law enforcement agreement with China, and on the other hand, China is committed not to violating Myanmar’s sovereignty by taking actions cross the border,” said Jian Kunyi, an associate professor of law from Yunnan University of Finance and Economics, “The result is that there is little chance international legal cooperation will materialize.”