The government of Taiwan is scrambling to assist hundreds of its nationals lured into human trafficking and abusive jobs scams in Cambodia, with many victims saying they were taken to work in Chinese-owned casinos in Sihanoukville, a former playground for well-heeled Chinese and now a growing hotbed of criminal activity.
Taiwan's foreign ministry said on Sunday that the government is working to bring home hundreds of Taiwanese allegedly being held hostage by human traffickers in Cambodia, after China tried to claim them as its nationals.
Officials say they have so far tracked down around 370 victims stuck in the country after being lured there on promises of high-paying tech jobs, but efforts to bring them home are being hampered by a lack of formal diplomatic ties with Cambodia, a close ally of Beijing which doesn't recognize Taiwan's sovereign status.
Sunday's announcement came after the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh offered assistance to Taiwanese trying to leave an abusive situation.
Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), nor formed part of the People's Republic of China, but Beijing insists the island, which was a Japanese dependency until the end of World War II, is part of its territory and has threatened to annex it by force.
According to the Global Anti Scam Organization (GASO), which tracks scams and trafficking schemes, as well as organizing rescue operations, estimates that online scams in Southeast Asia make the perpetrators billions of dollars a year, with the majority of victims located in Southeast Asian countries, China and Taiwan.
It called on job-seekers to be vigilant about the keywords "highly-paid expatriate" in advertisements, adding that many ads claim easy work for high pay for people who can speak and type Chinese.
Sources told RFA that many of the casinos where Taiwanese and Vietnamese victims have been rescued or escaped from are in Sihanoukville, and have a mostly Chinese clientele, hence the requirement for people who understand Mandarin.
The Chinese businesspeople in the city have a tight relationship with local government, and are hugely powerful in the local area, the sources said.
Some of the venues are guarded by armed security personnel, and security is generally very tight, they said.
Economist and political commentator Li Hengqing said the arrival of Chinese capital in Cambodia is directly linked to CCP leader Xi Jinping's Belt and Road infrastructure and supply chain strategy, which resulted in the construction of Sihanoukville and its attached port.
"Sihanoukville hasn't played a positive role [in the local economy], because it is mostly about gambling, and the clients aren't local," Li told RFA, adding that the city's core gambling tourism business must have been hard by China's exit bans due to its zero-COVID policy.
"I see there is a lot of construction, but much of it is incomplete," Li said. "There has been a lot of drug trafficking, along with the proliferation of local criminal gangs and guns, with a very high crime rate."
He said the investment in Sihanoukville had come back to haunt China with the specter of human trafficking targeting speakers of Mandarin.
"They only want to deal with Chinese speakers ... and they deceive them to generate more business opportunities," Li said.
Chinese investment in Cambodia skyrocketed when the Belt and Road strategy was launched in 2013, and accounted for 43 percent of foreign direct investment in the country in 2019.
Sihanoukville was originally intended as a seaside resort, but is now basically a city of Chinese casinos under the strong influence of Chinese tycoons, sources said.
Ya Tong, a manager at the Cambodia Pacific Real Estate Company, confirmed to RFA that more than 1,000 real estate projects in Sihanoukville are currently unfinished, and that the gambling industry has been hit by falls in tourist numbers during the pandemic.
Taiwan tourism expert Kui Chi-wei said the gambling sector in the city has been hard hit by China's travel bans due to COVID-19, with international clients more likely to go elsewhere.
RFA reported in June 2021 that Chinese businessman Xu Aimin, wanted for running a billion-dollar illegal international gambling group in mainland China and the subject of an Interpol "red notice, is living the high life in Cambodia after donating at least U.S.$500,000 to the government there and naturalizing as one of its citizens.
Xu's Cambodian empire spans gambling, real estate, hotels, water and road infrastructure projects including the luxury KB Hotel, one of the better-known casinos in Sihanoukville, where the authorities have named a street after him.
Xu, who became a Cambodian citizen in 2005, is named as director of the casino alongside the late owner of Phnom Penh Crown Football Club Rithy Samnang, who died of cancer in March. His widow Phu Cherlin is the daughter of Kok An, a senator in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
There have been rumors of the involvement of other Chinese companies in trafficking scams, too.
The Yunnan Jingcheng Group Co. and its founder Dong Lecheng said in a recent statement that all media reports of their involvement in human trafficking and online scams were "false propaganda" aimed at harming the company for personal gain.
"Fraudulent users of social media and organizations [must] immediately stop illegal defamation, to remove all false content and stop the promotion of such content," the statement said, warning of "prosecutions" for anyone who continued to link them to the scam.
Meanwhile, authorities in Thailand have arrested two former Chinese nationals in connection with the trafficking scams, Zhang Yufa and She Zhijiang.
Taiwanese police said on Aug. 19 that they have detained 22 people, four or five of whom had "gang backgrounds."
The Taiwan government set up a task-force to rescue victims after Taiwanese YouTuber Bump ran a rescue operation alongside GASO, bringing home a Taiwanese woman who was subjected to multiple gang rapes and other abuses after answering an advertisement to act as an escort to a wealthy Chinese businessman.
Radio Free Asia --Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036Radio Free Europe--Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.