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China's crackdown on cyber scams in Southeast Asia ensnares thousands but leaves the networks intact

BANGKOK: Zhang Hongliang, a former restaurant manager in central China, took various gigs in and outside China to support his family after losing his job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, a job offer to teach Chinese cooking at a restaurant led him into a cyber scam compound in Myanmar, where he was instead ordered to lure Chinese into giving up their savings for fake investment schemes via social media platforms.

Zhang is one of tens of thousands of people, mostly but not all Chinese, who have become ensnared in cyber scam networks run by powerful Chinese criminal syndicates in Southeast Asia.

Regional and Chinese authorities have netted thousands of people in a crackdown, but experts say they are failing to root out the local elites and criminal networks that are bound to keep running the schemes.

When scam operations are shut down in one place they often just resurface elsewhere. The problem is an embarrassment for Beijing and is discouraging ordinary Chinese from travelling to Southeast Asia out of fear they might be duped or kidnapped and caught up in a cyber scam operation.

In recent years, media reports have uncovered instances of young people being lured to places in Cambodia or Myanmar for high-paying jobs, only to be forced to work as scammers. Rescue organisations say people are regularly beaten or face physical punishments such as being forced to run laps if they don’t perform well.

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