Bloody but unbowed: The China Project ploughs on despite public scrutiny of highly disturbing claims
A young woman stands at The China Project gate. Women, particularly of Asian origin, are granted fewer freedoms at the site and are not allowed to leave without hard-to-get permission. A sign advertising a brothel hangs at the side of the building. KT/Chor Sokunthea
The China Project’s foundation remains solid despite cracks beginning to form as nefarious organisations spread their tentacles as a consequence of exclusive investigations by Khmer Times on sinister allegations of malfeasance.
Multiple sources reached out to this newspaper to report instances of abuse at the hands of enforcers at the location believed to be housing at least 8,000 people – most of whom are Chinese nationals.
Each had varying experiences working for companies located at the 10-building complex.
They claimed to have been taken hostage, beaten, starved, isolated, extorted, sexually abused, trafficked and stripped of their basic human dignity.
The victims are alleged to have been forced to scam individuals by creating fraudulent social media and dating application profiles. Often, they responded to fraudulent online job postings and sometimes end up enticing others to join.
They said they lived under the threat of harassment and were rewarded for converting social media interactions into WhatsApp or WeChat contacts and for convincing people to invest in various scams involving cryptocurrencies and stocks.
Up to $400,000 is said to have been garnered from one unwitting individual.
The spouse of one victim described an incident when a busload of people illegally crossed the border from Vietnam and now they are in captivity.
If true, this suggests the organisations are complicit in trans-national human trafficking. Some people have been freed since reports of the crimes surfaced last month. An unknown number of individuals, believed mostly to be Bangladeshi nationals, have been sold to other companies in the complex or relocated to other buildings.
Security has also been noticeably stepped up since Khmer Times magnified the scale of the problem in the China Project.Real estate agents are reporting employers have begun distancing themselves from the location because of media attention. They said that organisations based in The China Project are seeking to rent entire buildings to house up to 1,000 people.
Most victims said they were housed in small rooms with metal-framed bunk beds along with four to five other people. Companies are offering to pay real estate companies $100 to $250 for rooms in standalone buildings.
They were paying $500 to $1,000 per room in 2019. Cambodian landlords are said to be paid less than those of Chinese origin.
Individuals from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand were reportedly seeking locations outside the complex.
“I have started receiving 10 to 100 room inquiries after the news became popular,” a realtor with years of experience told Khmer Times.
The companies are said to be moving to other locations in O’tres, Victory Hill, near the seaport and downtown Sihanoukville. Some are believed to be scouting locations in Battambang province and the capital.
At least one location in Victory Hill is said to be in the midst of a Coronavirus outbreak; individuals from there are being moved to other locations, according to a source in a nongovernmental organisation (NGO).
One Cambodian-American female is believed to be held at the largest compound in Victory Hill.
Japanese nationals are also victimised.
The crimes are linked to money laundering using cryptocurrency. One organisation linked to individuals in the complex named “Boneinthroat” said online: “We have to survive. We know everything about scam, cheating, dumb ppl [sic], grea builders [sic] and Blockchain developers. We could easily double you [sic] bitcoins.”
A cybercrime expert specialising in online business and cybersecurity said the company was “probably linked to a Russian organisation” but was not able to confirm it definitively.
Two Eastern European women lived at the compound. Their images were used to lure unsuspecting victims to invest in the scam. They would sometimes appear before a camera to prove that they were real and be forced to watch men pleasure themselves. The Ukrainian woman is believed to have returned to her country of origin. The Russian national is believed to still be in the compound. A third woman, believed to be Polish, may have joined a company in the complex. The women were allegedly used as “rewards” for employees who performed well at their task. One victim said he was offered drugs and sex with the Russian woman after performing exceptionally well at his task. “I’m stuck at the part where I pretend I’m happy,” the Russian posted on social media earlier this week as her camera panned across a stretch of desolate O’tres Beach.
At its peak, The China Project was said to hold up to 12,000 people at a time. The complex was described as a small city with banking services, food, convenience shops and even a visa office attached to the building.
The visa office was frequently used by companies to renew paperwork for employees.
Busloads of Chinese nationals used to frequent the visa renewal office and patronise the apartments while their visas were being processed.
Many of the stores attached to the complex have closed because of the pandemic. A red banner in Chinese text indicates that a brothel remains operating at the site.The Chinese government has formed a special committee with the involvement of more than 40 ministries to combat telecommunications fraud.
China-Cambodia Law Enforcement Cooperation Office officials told Khmer Times: “Chinese police and Cambodian police are looking for a way to resolve the problem. It is every police officer’s responsibility to crack down on crimes of this nature which are particularly horrific. Our government has a very strict policy to crack down on such crimes. It is a key task for our police to stop this from occurring and we are cooperating with police internationally.”
An officer whose name has been withheld thanked Khmer Times for its coverage of the crimes and offered additional information. Deaths occurs almost every other week at The China Project. Officials have difficulty differentiating murders from suicides. Some corpses have messages written on their arms informing individuals that their death was not a suicide. Others have scratches on their bodies indicating they were made in self-defence.
The majority of the victims and perpetrators are of Chinese origin – they are said to hail from every province in the country with the exception of Xinjiang and perhaps the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
“I swear I will bring them to justice,” the officer vowed. “We just need to collect more evidence and need the undivided cooperation of the local police who need encouraging.”
In a statement referring to The China Project this week, the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh warned its nationals against engaging in illegal activities in the Kingdom.
“Our embassy has noticed that some media articles have exposed the existence of online gambling, fraud, detention, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking and drug trafficking and other illegal criminal activities at the China Project’ in Sihanoukville. Victims involved are from many countries. Many are Chinese. Our office attaches great importance to this and is maintaining close communication with the Cambodian side,” the Chinese-language statement read.
“Law enforcement cooperation is an important part of China-Cambodia relations and is an important part of the two countries’ joint construction of a community with a shared vision of the future. The two sides have always maintained a high level of cooperation. In order to further crack down on criminal activities involving online gambling by Chinese citizens in Cambodia, law enforcement agencies of China and Cambodia are actively communicating, making every effort to eliminate various obstacles and launching special combat operations as soon as possible.”
Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi is to pay a visit to Cambodia this weekend. Victims expressed hoped that he will raise the topic with Prime Minister Hun Sen during his visit.
At least 80 Chinese nationals are believed to be held in just two rooms in another location in Sihanoukville. Thousands more remain unaccounted for. The Chinese diaspora is by far the most victimised demographic.
Chinese-language media in the Kingdom have quoted individuals saying they are hesitant to tell people that they are coming to Cambodia for work because they will be linked to cybercrimes.
An individual from the Asian subcontinent shared with Khmer Times from inside the compound that he has been held against his will for almost two months.
He said he has been sold to three different organisations in the province and fears that he will soon be sent to a fourth next week. Earlier this week, five Turkish nationals were released after action was taken by their embassy in Phnom Penh. Preah Sihanoukville Deputy Police Commissioner Brigadier General Yi Chon has still not responded to a request for a comment on the matter despite repeated requests.
Some victims have raised unsubstantiated allegations of organ harvesting.It is believed that up to 10,000 people are working in The China Project. Those higher up in organisations are believed to live in Building 10, within the China Project complex.
The spouse of a victim reached out to Khmer Times for help. The individual said a Western embassy staff member in the capital urged him to pay $3,000 to the organisation to secure his partner’s release.
The spouse called on NGOs and government agencies to act.
At least one NGO specialising in fighting human trafficking said it is unable to assist victims until they file formal police reports.
However, victims fear retaliation and are hesitant to file police reports because of alleged police involvement.
There are at least 12 similar large-scale operations in the coastal province, according to a source familiar with the matter.
“It is the same businesses and the same gangs that were here in 2019 until Hun Sen banned online gambling,” one source said.
Online gambling activities and telecommunications fraud are not isolated to The China Project. Organisations are believed to take up rooms in five-star hotels for weeks at a time for their operations. Police have allegedly been paid off and refuse to enter the complex. Some say they are “afraid”. Locals frequently report instances of people going missing. Women are no longer seen at the gates of the complex after Khmer Times on its front page published a photograph showing a young woman exchanging hundred dollar notes with a heavily tattooed man in broad daylight.
Sources have said women applying for work at the complex are screened for their physical appearance.
There is also believed to be an age limit for applicants: Women are allowed to be 28 years old at most while men are generally aged between 23 and 25. Men “with experience” can be as old as 35. Women, particularly those of Asian descent, are granted far fewer freedoms than men. They are not allowed to cross the barricades at the site.
Witnesses have seen Chinese nationals returning to their country of origin travelling to airports with bruises, arms in casts or sometimes requesting wheelchairs. An individual inside the complex said there are at least 15 Coronavirus cases inside one building. Entire companies and industries have reportedly been propped up to supply the complex with goods ranging from linen to water and instant noodles.
The sinister activities being performed at The China Project suggest that online scams are moving on from phishing emails like those from so-called Nigerian princes. They have given way to a new form of digital fraud.
In Cambodia, cryptocurrency frauds have severely more undesirable repercussions and are seriously damaging the lives of up to 25,000 people in a single province, it is said. The Kingdom has been granted a second waiver after being placed in Tier 2 of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Human Persons Watch List for three consecutive years. US laws do not allow for a third waiver to be granted and Cambodia risks being downgraded to Tier 3, which will cut off substantial foreign aid.
The China-Cambodia Law Enforcement Cooperation Office officials told Khmer Times that similar activities are also rampant in several neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Philippines and Indonesia and each have a task force working hard to crackdown and put an end to this blood money business.
“The local police need a lot of support and encouragement and we are willing to provide it,” he said.