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Detained gambling tycoon She Zhijiang faces repatriation to China

Poker chips (Jismab/WikiCommons)
September 23, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese Communist Party officials appear to be distancing themselves from detained gambling tycoon She Zhijiang, whose casinos have been linked with massive human trafficking and online scam operations in the region, and who faces imminent repatriation to China after being arrested by Thai police in August 2022.

She, who owns property and gaming ventures in Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines, stands accused of “running illegal online gambling operations,” and will likely face repatriation very soon coinciding with the expiration of his 30-day appeal period, according to an official statement and a person familiar with the case.

A deputy spokesman for Thailand’s Supreme Prosecutor’s Office announced that the court had issued a deportation order for She on May 25. However, the order allowed 30 days for She to appeal the decision.

Shortly afterwards, Thailand’s Provincial Electricity Authority said it would cut off the power supply to Shwe Kokko, the site of She’s $15 billion real estate and casino mega-project that has become notorious as a bastion of illegal activity, including drug trafficking, amid violence and unrest in post-coup Myanmar. 

Meanwhile, officials linked to Beijing’s international outreach and influence operations are now claiming he has no connection with a key organization carrying out its “United Front” work among overseas Chinese.

While official reports show She attending top-level meetings in Beijing in 2019 hosted by the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, a known United Front organization, officials at the body said they had “no knowledge” of She’s case when contacted by Radio Free Asia, and that it fell under the remit of the China Federation of Overseas Entrepreneurs instead.

However, an official at the entrepreneurs’ organization said She, as a former high-ranking officer in the organization, would still be the business of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese.

As Chinese officials appeared pass the buck on She, a Thailand-based dissident who shared a detention center cell with him in Bangkok told Radio Free Asia that the former gambling tycoon is desperate to avoid repatriation to China amid an ongoing crackdown on human trafficking and online scams that have netted thousands of victims across the region in recent years.

According to court documents shared with the dissident by She, he had once been a valued collaborator for the Chinese authorities, and was put in touch with state security police in the southern island province of Hainan and given a handler to provide intelligence for Beijing.

United Front darling

She, a former Cambodian national who was granted Chinese citizenship during his 2019 Beijing trip, now fears that his most basic human rights won’t be protected and is calling on the international community to help prevent his repatriation to China, the dissident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said.

She wouldn’t be the first former darling of the United Front system to face repercussions back home amid an ongoing anti-corruption and anti-espionage campaign that typically nets people who have fallen out of political favor under general secretary Xi Jinping, or who are considered insufficiently loyal to China’s supreme leader.

In May, a court in the eastern city of Suzhou handed down a life sentence to 78-year-old American citizen John Leung, who headed a Beijing-backed overseas Chinese community group, after finding him guilty of “espionage.” Leung had also previously been photographed alongside high-ranking Communist Party officials.

“She Zhijiang made his name and fortune in Myawaddy, an extremely sensitive area in the hands of the Chinese,” the dissident said, referring to an area in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, where She’s Yatai Corp is a major investor in the Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone.

While the Shwe Kokko mega-project along the Thaungyin River was initially promoted as a way to spur economic growth and deliver material benefits to the local community, it has gained notoriety more as a bastion of illegal activity, according to a report by the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies, C4ADS, an independent research outfit that studies transnational organized crime networks.

According to the dissident, She believes that his army of some 5,000 mercenaries and his deep connections in the local area should protect him from the worst form of political retaliation on his return to China. Yet he still fears he could receive the death penalty.

“I told him he has been abandoned by the Communist Party, who can easily deal with other people under his command,” the dissident said, adding that She had handed over copies of hundreds of pages of court trial records and other documents and asked him to make them public.

Much of the material details close cooperation between She and Chinese Communist Party officials, including his recruitment as an agent by the state security police.

They also allege that he paid up to two million yuan in bribes to An Chen, secretary-general of the China Federation of Overseas Entrepreneurs.

Personal fiefdom

According to the dissident, She ran afoul of Beijing after he grew extremely powerful in Myawaddy, and wanted to run the Asia-Pacific City complex in the Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone as his personal fiefdom, something that the Chinese Communist Party couldn’t countenance owing to the strategic importance of the area, which is close to the border with Thailand.

Chinese state media reports from the time of She’s arrest described She as the “Asia-Pacific City online scam king,” whose operation in Myawaddy had attracted more than 100 casino and scam companies to Asia-Pacific City.

“Amid a vast network of vested interests and transactions, crimes like smuggling, kidnapping, human trafficking, fraud, assault, extortion are densely intertwined and span Southeast Asia and China,” the August 2022 Phoenix News report on She’s arrest said.

“She Zhijiang, who has changed his nationality and who has multiple pseudonyms, rules the roost like an emperor.” 

According to the dissident, none of these activities could have taken place in Myanmar without the knowledge and collusion of the Chinese Communist Party.

“You can’t do this stuff with no backing – behind them are governments and warlords,” he said. “The Chinese Communist Party controls 100% of this place.”

Another person familiar with organized crime in the region agreed that the Chinese government is heavily involved with organizations carrying out criminal activities in the region, including in Myawaddy, Sihanoukville and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, a gambling and tourism hub catering to the Chinese and situated along the Mekong River where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand converge. 

“There’s a man called Zhao Wei in the Golden Triangle SEZ who has leased a piece of land for 99 years, and the place is full of gray-to-black operations,” the person said. “The entire area is under his control … and he is engaged in scams, human trafficking and wild animal trafficking around there.”

“Basically 80% of the scamming industry in Southeast Asia is run by people from Fujian [province],” he said.