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LONG DISTANCE CHARGES

During the recent nationwide telecom and internet fraud campaign, local authorities have strengthened efforts to lure back Chinese nationals engaged in telecom fraud from Myanmar

By Xu Tian Updated Nov.1

Wu Yang, 19, met a woman over a dating app in March 2020. She told him that her relative, who ran a karaoke parlor in northern Myanmar, was looking to hire a bartender. The job paid 8,000 yuan (US$1,236) a month plus commission.  

The next day, Wu and a friend left Anxi County, Southeastern China’s Fujian Province to cross the country to Baoshan, Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar in China’s southwest.  

When they arrived at the airport, a man was waiting for them. Wu said he felt something was not right.  

They were soon joined by other young men from across China. At night, the group crossed the mountainous border.  

Once in Myanmar, they got in another vehicle, which took them to the karaoke parlor. Armed men in military uniforms stood out front. Only three or four of the many karaoke booths were open.  

Wu could hear cries coming from a basement.  

He had been smuggled into Myanmar by a telecom fraud ring. Wu told NewsChina that he was forced to operate social media accounts on three mobile phones and lure victims into an online gambling scam.  

Whether by coincidence or design, Wu’s home county of Anxi is also one of the Chinese mainland’s earliest hotbeds for telecom fraud.  

According to Zheng Zhen, an associate professor at Fujian Police University, phone scams first arrived on the mainland from Taiwan – which sits directly off of Fujian’s coast, with the first cases dating from 1997.  

“Since 2000, scammers from Taiwan have been coming to the mainland’s southeast coastal areas to operate larger-scale con operations that quickly spread across the country,” Zheng said.  

In the latest crackdown on telecom fraud, local authorities are resorting to promises of immunity and pressure tactics – including targeting family members in China – to get scammers abroad to return and turn themselves in.  

While some from Anxi and other parts of China head to Myanmar to knowingly engage in illegal activates, others like Wu claim they were trafficked into the country under false pretenses and held against their will. This not only makes prosecution more difficult but crackdowns more complex.  

Hometown Roots 
About 70 kilometers inland from the Taiwan Strait, Wu’s home county of Anxi is known for exporting Oolong tea, and since the early 2000s, telecom scams.  

According to Zheng’s research into 128 police cases involving telecom fraud in Fujian, 146 out of the 345 suspects came from Anxi. This notoriety has earned Anxi the local nickname the “hometown of crooks.”  

In some areas of Anxi, telecom fraud is no secret. There are even training schools and companies that specialize in crafting scams.  

At the height of Anxi telecom fraud in the late 2000s, more than one million SMS texts were sent out daily. Using automated bots, fraud operations sent daily salvos of messages to unsuspecting victims across the nation, touting scams including lottery numbers, prize notifications and ads for fake diplomas.  

A local official told the reporter under condition of anonymity that before the telecom fraud boom in Anxi County’s Kuidou, the town was officially designated as impoverished, with average annual salaries ranging between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan (US$1,545-3,090). “Young people thought the farming their parents’ generation did was too hard, but without any skills, they couldn’t find jobs elsewhere,” the official said. “Many were attracted to the lucrative fraud business, and because they were unfamiliar with the law, they didn’t think it was a crime,” he added.  

Anxi’s economy has turned around in recent years thanks to tea and furniture manufacturing. The county’s GDP in 2020 was $75.74 billion yuan (US$11.7b), with tea production’s total output value contributing 25 billion yuan (US$3.88b) and home furnishings exceeding 20 billion yuan (US$3.87b). Most locals work in these two industries. But as some became wealthy, the income gap widened. The county’s average per capita disposable income was 25,000 yuan (US$ 3,863) in 2020, lower than the national average.  

Wu’s family runs a furniture workshop from their home, where they process orders for bigger manufacturers. Wu has a vocational school degree in e-business, but failed to promote the family’s products online. Seeking to make some quick cash, Wu headed to northern Myanmar. 

Other young people in Anxi interviewed by NewsChina told similar stories: Most were born in rural regions to ordinary families and have a junior high school education. Their only prospects were joining their family business, either in tea harvesting or furniture making, or get a factory job in a city.  

Like Wu, they chose Myanmar. Lured by promises of high-paying jobs, they are smuggled into the country. Once there, they are snared into telecom fraud scams, prostitution, gambling, money laundering and other illegal activities. Some were willing. Others said they were coerced. 

In 2017, Anxi was listed by an inter-ministerial conference of the State Council as a key area to control the outflow of cross-border scammers. Anxi dispatched police officers across the country to track down telecom fraudsters. One police officer told the reporter that over 20 officers from Anxi were sent to the border region of Yunnan, costing the county public security bureau 10 million yuan (US$1.54m) annually. But due to lack of inter-provincial police cooperation, the operations had little effect, the officer said.  

“Poor information exchange and cooperation between law enforcement and telecommunications, banks and other authorities have become major obstacles to dealing with telecom fraud cases,” Song Xiaohui, a teacher at Shaanxi Police Officer Vocational College in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, told NewsChina.  

Several interviewees from the police department in Anxi called for the creation of a national database to track telecom fraud activities. Despite decades of efforts, previous crackdowns in Anxi failed because there was no coordination mechanism in place, they said.  

Six people suspected of sneaking across China’s border into Myanmar were caught by police from Anxi County, Fujian Province, and Longchuan County, Yunnan Province, March 2021

Anxi County police arrest a man suspected of fraud earlier this year

Police process phones confiscated from a telecom fraud hideout, Anxi County, Fujian Province

Escape Plan 
Life had changed for Wu in Myanmar, but not like he expected.  

He alleged that he and his fellow scammers underwent “performance reviews” every two weeks. Those who failed to lure in 10 victims during that time would be pepper sprayed, or even worse, shocked with an electric prod.  

Wu told NewsChina that he was maced one time for not hitting his quota. His friend was shocked with the electric prod for breaking other rules.  

Wu barely ate or slept. He eventually began plotting his escape. But his phones, given to him by his captors, purposefully did not have messaging apps WeChat or QQ installed, making it difficult to contact anyone back in China for help, Wu said.  

Then by luck, he noticed someone in a chat group for the fraud operation was an old acquaintance from Anxi. In secret the two hatched a plan: make a run for it while the armed guards were out for dinner.  

One night, they slipped out a back window. Once outside, they quickly hailed a cab and had the driver take them straight to the border. 

According to Yi Leibing, Party secretary for the town of Jiandou in Anxi County, many young people from his area are trafficked to northern Myanmar. Traffickers would sell them to telecom fraud gangs for around 10,000 yuan (US$1,514) each. To gain their freedom, they have to pay a ransom.  

Yunnan Province shares a 1,941-kilometerlong border with Myanmar. Dai Yonghong, a professor at the South Asian Research Institute, Sichuan University, said that many parts of northern Myanmar are under the control of ethnic military groups. To fund their militias, many turned to criminal activities including human trafficking, drugs and gambling.  

Jian Kunyi, director of the Law School of Yunnan University of Finance and Economics, said he was unaware of any cooperation treaty between China and military forces in northern Myanmar. Jian added that other factors, including a shared culture and language among groups in border regions, fosters the gathering of telecom fraud gangs.  

As a result, China��s reach is limited in cracking down on traffickers in northern Myanmar.  

In October 2019, China attempted to block all social media activity and payment accounts to areas with known concentrations of telecom and network fraud in northern Myanmar. However, the sweeping ban drew complaints from innocent people living along the border who had their accounts blocked.  

Upgraded Efforts 
The crackdown ramped up in April after a national teleconference was held on new telecom crime. Zhao Kezhi, China’s minister of public security, stressed that local authorities in regions where telecom and online fraud crimes were serious should strengthen the management of fraud-related personnel.  

Local governments are responsible for contacting and persuading fraudsters operating abroad to return home. Jian Kunyi said that without proper jurisdiction, persuasion is the most practical tactic to combat telecom fraud in northern Myanmar. As a result, the country kicked off a nationwide campaign to lure fraudsters operating across the border in Myanmar back over Chinese borders.  

According to Jiandou’s Party Secretary Yi Leibing, more than 700 of the town’s citizens were stuck in northern Myanmar after illegally crossing the border until this April. Luring them back posed a big challenge to authorities. In a video posted online in early May, Jiandou’s police chief said those who applied to return to China before May 15 would not face charges. Some applied to reenter China, but many were apprehensive and remained abroad. The local government then threatened to cut off pensions and benefits to the family members of those who refused to return.  

Anxi County announced that houses built with illicit funds would be destroyed, those bought with illicit funds would be confiscated and the people residing in the houses would be evicted. In Tianmen, Hubei Province and Binyang, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, local authorities said those who refused to return from Myanmar could lose their hukou, or household registration permit, and never be able to return to China.  

In late 2020, Wu Yang finally crossed the Chinese border, ending what was a sixmonth ordeal. After quarantining for pandemic control, he arrived home in Anxi County, where he turned himself in to local police for telecom fraud.  

Due to his claims of abduction and cooperation with authorities, Wu was not prosecuted. 

Banners with slogans vowing to crack down on cross-border telecom fraud hang in Anxi County

Police use a drone to surveil the mountains surrounding a telecom base station in Changkeng Town, Anxi County, Fujian Province

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