08/19/2022, 13.38
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Casino tycoon arrested as human trafficking casts shadow on the 'new silk road'

by John Ai

She Zhijiang was arrested in Thailand and is awaiting extradition to his homeland. Online casinos and fake sites thrive along the "Belt and Road" using "personnel" trafficked from China and Southeast Asian countries. Because of the "zero covid" policy, criminal gangs recruit more and more people from Taiwan, which in the absence of diplomatic relations has difficulty retrieving its citizens.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - She Zhijiang, a Chinese-born casino magnate, has been arrested in Thailand and is awaiting extradition to China. The measure is among those taken by authorities to crack down on online gambling, which is banned in China but has thrived in recent years in some areas of Southeast Asia along with other shady dealings. Beijing is trying to curb crime along the "Silk Road" because it damages China's trade and reputation.

Born in 1982 in Hunan province, She Zhijiang obtained Cambodian citizenship in 2017. He has set up gambling networks in Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines, with the most prominent project being Yatai New City on the Myanmar-Thai border, claiming it was part of the Belt and Road Initiative. According to authorities, She controls human traffickers who deceptively recruit individuals who will go to work for online fraud sites making them modern slaves.

These illegal activities have colonized some poorer areas of the region where Southeast Asian governments have established special economic zones to attract Chinese investment. In 2016, for example, the Cambodian government established a special economic zone in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, where in fact many buildings remain unfinished due to debt on real estate. However, skyscrapers surrounded by high walls and barbed wire have also sprung up in recent years in Laos and in areas of Myanmar controlled by pro-Chinese militias such as Myawaddy on the Thai border. 

After China's ban on gambling, Cambodian authorities issued licenses for virtual casinos generating billions of dollars in revenue. According to Cambodian immigration authority statistics, more than 400,000 Chinese left the country after online gambling became illegal.

When Chinese authorities, however, realized that overseas casinos were a money laundering channel causing capital outflow, the Hun Sen administration, under pressure from Beijing, outlawed gambling in 2020. At that point, some companies moved elsewhere, for example to Myanmar, while others decided to convert their business back to digital scams.

Criminal groups post recruitment ads and young people, lured by high salaries, are kidnapped and forced to work for websites that scam other people abroad.

The buildings where trafficked people are locked up are called "digital industrial parks" and are guarded by military and security guards. Once inside, cell phones and passports are confiscated. People can leave the compound only by paying a ransom. Those who try to escape are physically abused and women are used as sex slaves. There have also been leaked reports of victims being sold to other gangs or sent to the "KK Industrial Park" in Myawaddy, Myanmar, known for illegal organ trafficking.

Most of the people working in these "industrial parks" come from China. According to Chinese media at least 230,000 citizens involved in overseas scams have returned home, but the announcement does not mention whether it was due to international judicial cooperation. Last year, Beijing had tried to persuade criminals to turn themselves in to the police by freezing their bank accounts and isolating families who remained in China. According to the Chinese government in this way thousands of suspects returned from Myanmar. 

Recently, because of the "zero covid" policy, it is increasingly difficult for criminal gangs to recruit "personnel" from mainland China, so they have turned to Taiwan and to a lesser extent Malaysia. According to Taiwan's Foreign Ministry, at least 200 Taiwanese are trapped in Cambodia or Myanmar. Online ads urge people to travel to Cambodia where with a fee up to 20 thousand U.S. dollars can be earned. Statistics show that indeed in the first part of the year there was a record number of transfers from Taiwan to Cambodia.

However, in the absence of diplomatic ties, it is almost impossible in Taiwan to recover trafficking victims. Authorities are forced to turn to prominent Taiwanese businessmen or Cambodian police, but the latter are often colluded with criminal gangs. Victims' families also turn to the Taiwanese mafia to pay ransoms. Taiwanese police have stepped up patrols at Taoyuan International Airport, where there are flights to Cambodia, to persuade potential victims not to board. 

Cambodia denies systematic human trafficking and admits only "labor disputes," but even today a video is circulating online in which 40 Vietnamese who escaped from a Cambodian casino are trying to swim back to their country.

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