The 2021 military coup in Myanmar not only triggered an unprecedented nationwide revolt against military rule but is increasingly precipitating challenges to global security. The junta’s ineffectual rule has resulted in the rise of cross-border human trafficking and cyber scams, which have impacted almost every corner of the globe, taking an especially heavy toll on China’s people while also benefiting organized Chinese crime groups. Beijing’s response to the situation in Myanmar has been mixed. While it has backed the junta, China has also hedged by supporting some of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed organizations, extending Chinese influence in the country.

Chinese visitors are taken into Myanmar by motorbikes to avoid Chinese border controls near Mong La, Myanmar, Feb. 6, 2014. Since Myanmar’s 2021 coup, illegal activity across the border has skyrocketed. (Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)
Chinese visitors are taken into Myanmar by motorbikes to avoid Chinese border controls near Mong La, Myanmar, Feb. 6, 2014. Since Myanmar’s 2021 coup, illegal activity across the border has skyrocketed. (Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

Beijing expresses strong public concern over the rise in crime, but its efforts to crackdown have done more to increase Chinese security influence in Myanmar than thwart the powerful Chinese crime syndicates now deeply embedded in the country. The lawlessness — and its global consequences — that has spread throughout the regions surrounding Myanmar’s borders with Thailand and China is something the international community must take more seriously. And how China decides to handle it will significantly impact Myanmar’s conflict and the ability of Myanmar-based crime groups to sustain their illicit activities.  

A Complicated Bilateral Relationship

Myanmar’s military leaders know they need Chinese support and are worried about China’s hedging strategy. For months, coup leader Min Aung Hlaing has tried to obtain higher levels of Chinese support by securing an invitation to visit China. Sources from within his own regime have leaked information indicating that the military leader has offered to restart highly controversial hydropower projects in Kachin State, which have been suspended since 2011, in exchange for visit to Beijing. In a similar vein, the junta responded in early June to Chinese demands to provide the security necessary to resume operations at a highly controversial Chinese copper mine in the Sagaing region, displacing nearly 5,000 people.

Since the end of last year, Beijing has demonstrated a growing commitment to engagement and cooperation with the junta, including providing the military with robust political support. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang announced in May during his visit to Myanmar that the Chinese government will enhance interactions with “all departments” of the junta regime. Meanwhile, Beijing has increasingly distanced itself from the regime’s primary adversaries. Beginning in October 2021, China ceased its public engagement with the former ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). By early 2023, it began pressuring the country’s most powerful ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to come to terms with the army and cut down on its interactions with the opposition National Unity Government and the many other actors involved in the ongoing spring revolution. 

In China’s Yunnan Province, where the economic growth is highly dependent on connectivity to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar, local governments and Chinese enterprises have taken even bolder steps to cooperate with the junta regime. The Yunnan government has convened meetings and facilitated new business relationships and investments with junta ministries and connected businesses. In sum, the Chinese government has signaled a strong desire to partner with the Myanmar military regime to secure Beijing’s economic interests; to further economic, cultural and political cooperation; and to neutralize Western support for democracy in the country.

Even still, there are still many additional steps that Beijing could take to strengthen the military’s hand against the vast ranks of the country’s EAOs, People’s Defense Forces and the millions of Myanmar people who refuse to submit to military rule. For example, it could cut trade with powerful EAOs in the border area, and restrict their access to Chinese telecommunications, banking and finance systems. So, why has Beijing refused to provide Min Aung Hlaing with additional support, and turned a cold shoulder to the murderous general’s requests to visit China?

Crimes Against the Chinese People

Part of the answer lies in Beijing’s growing recognition of the crisis it faces with respect to the trafficking of its nationals — including children as young as 15 — into Myanmar’s cyber-slavery industry.

A quick search on Tik-Tok shows the extent to which cross-border trafficking and cyber slavery present a security threat to China. One June 6 post sheds light on the experience of thousands of Chinese parents across the country. “Ms. Deng” recounts that her son traveled from the northern province of Hebei to Yunnan for work in February 2023, only later to reveal to his mother that he was subsequently “sold to Myanmar and would have to pay 250,000 Chinese yuan” to secure his freedom.

Chinese journalists investigating the case later traveled to the border county of Pu’er, where local Chinese police said that they had received a report but could only “wait for the Myanmar side to respond.” Other posts feature videos of parents in tears telling the stories of their children being trafficked or tricked into cyber slavery in Myanmar. Another post features an interview with one Xing Linyuan, the owner of a Chinese travel agency who was sold for 2 million Chinese yuan to criminals operating in collusion with the Myanmar army’s Border Guard Force (BGF). Xing recounts his escape from the compound, which nearly cost him his life.

While reports of the missing now flood Chinese media and social media, what is not being reported is the growing collective action now emerging among family members, and especially parents, who have seen their children trafficked or sold across the border into Myanmar. WeChat groups with hundreds of individuals looking for assistance are beginning to emerge, as are reports highlighting the “powerlessness” of the Chinese government to check this activity.

Official PRC sources indicate that the Chinese police handled in excess of 464,000 cases of cross-border scams and fraud in 2022, took down 790,000 websites involved in scams, and issued 10,923 arrest warrants relevant to these crimes in the first quarter of the year alone. Despite these numbers, this seems to have barely made a dent in illicit activity.

China’s Demands of the Junta

During his May trip to Myanmar, Qin used surprisingly strong language in raising this issue with the representatives of the military regime, “demanding” that Myanmar crackdown. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs later publicly declared that the crimes are “detested by the Chinese people” and that they have caused “serious harm” to China.

Throughout May, Beijing continued to signal its discontent with the criminal activity. China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, raised it later with the junta’s deputy prime minister and minister of immigration and population. This criminal activity was also one of the key reasons for a senior Chinese military intelligence official to visit Myanmar — perhaps not coincidently on the same day that Chen discussed these issues with senior regime representatives. While the junta was quick to publicly frame the visit of People’s Liberation Army Acting Intelligence Director Yang Yang as a sign of warming ties between the two armies, the Chinese side did not make any public statements regarding the meeting. Yang’s only other publicly reported overseas visit in 2023 was a trip to Cambodia, with both Chinese and Cambodian media reporting that the purpose of the visit was to enhance military intelligence activity to “crush all forms of criminal activity.”

Can the Junta Deliver?

The Chinese embassy in Myanmar has already sought to create a narrative of success, announcing that it had captured six criminals — who were swiftly brought back to China on June 19 — through tripartite cooperation with Thailand and Myanmar. Meanwhile police bureaus across China have launched campaigns, publicizing dozens of arrests and cross-border repatriations of “criminals” from Myanmar.

Dynamics playing out on the Myanmar-Thailand border around the notorious Shwe Kokko Yatai New City Project tell a very different story. A criminal enclave backed by a Chinese crime boss with ties to corrupt officials in China and Cambodia, Shwe Kokko was a source of tension between China and Myanmar back in the summer of 2020 after it became clear that criminals were co-opting China’s Belt and Road Initiative to provide cover for illegal activity. While the Shwe Kokko crime city was effectively shut down in December 2020 thanks to the effort of the NLD government, the 2021 coup enabled a dramatic scaling up of cross-border crimes in the zone.

In early June, following repeated demands from Chinese officials, the junta issued orders to Thailand that electricity be cut to Shwe Kokko as a means of ending the cross-border crime. The Myanmar army’s own Border Guard Force immediately rebuffed the army’s announcement, threatening to shutdown border trade if the Thai side complied. When the Thai authorities took action on June 7, the BGF began ramping up imports of generators and diesel fuel, enabling the scam syndicates inside the criminal enclave to continue operations. Meanwhile, the syndicates and the BGF further flaunted the army’s so-called “crackdown” on June 8, partnering with three EAOs to organize a public donation of over $100,000 to respond to the power outage.  

China may want to appear tough on crime, but thus far its cooperation with the Myanmar junta to crackdown on this activity has done little more than show the junta’s inability to control its own Border Guard Force. Meanwhile, vast criminal zones across the country continue to expand, particularly in the northern Shan State town of Tachileik and in territory controlled by another Myanmar army BGF right on China’s border. The junta is increasingly willing to permit Chinese police operations across the country — a clear sign of deepening Chinese security influence. But it will take nothing short of a full-fledged military operation to dislodge this criminal activity, given the extent to which the compounds are protected by armed militias, armed criminal groups and even elements of the Myanmar army.

A Global Problem Requiring a Global Solution

While the provincial government of China’s Yunnan Province may be keen on pushing a narrative of a new normal to advance geo-strategic interests in Min Aung Hlaing’s Myanmar, Chinese attempts to support the junta’s efforts to address cross-border problems that threaten social stability and national security are failing.   

Beijing will eventually need respond to the reality that its support for Min Aung Hlaing’s regime will not only fail to stabilize its geo-strategic investments but will inflict greater harm on Chinese nationals targeted by Chinese criminal groups now running countless cyber-crime centers across the country.  What is more, according to Interpol, the type of trafficking-fueled fraud now rampant in Myanmar threatens the security of almost every country around the world. Increasingly sophisticated scams perpetrated from inside Myanmar’s criminal enclaves can target victims in almost any jurisdiction with laser precision. Given that these criminal networks are from China, and given Beijing’s support for the Myanmar military regime and other militias which protect them, much of the onus for this global security crisis is on Beijing.

This is an issue that begs for robust international cooperation. Once China recognizes that these problems will only grow more acute under the military’s rule — particularly considering that criminal actors already threaten to rival the military in power and influence — this may finally open space for the international coordination needed to address this and many other global problems created by the Myanmar army. In the meantime, as the army continues to hide behind Chinese political support, the international community will need to brace itself for the continued spread of malign criminal activity. All the while, the Chinese people will continue to suffer from cross-border trafficking and scams.

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