The banning of the Chinese blockbuster “No More Bets'' warns that Beijing’s patience is wearing thin over Cambodia’s apparent inability to control cyber crime within its borders. A dramatic drop in tourism numbers may be one symptom.
All bets are off with regard to the impact in Cambodia of “No More Bets”, a hit Chinese movie based upon Southeast Asia’s cyber-scam industry.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts last week requested the Chinese Embassy to stop screening the action thriller, banning it in Cambodia and calling for censorship in China.
International observers say the movie already is testing the limits of the two nations’ “ironclad” friendship, as well as impacting the already-collapsing Chinese tourism market in Cambodia. Indeed, the outrage generated by “No More Bets” is amplifying awareness of possible further political and economic consequences of this “scamdemic”.
“The movie will make international tourists scared of coming to Cambodia, that they cannot trust their own safety in the country,” Pa Chanroeun, the president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, told a local news outlet. “The story line severely affects Cambodia’s image and will harm the tourism sector.”
Directed by Shen Ao, “No More Bets” is based on the surge in organised crime in Southeast Asia, particularly the networks of online scam operations connected with Chinese syndicates and exacerbated following the pandemic. The film portrays these criminal operations as thriving on the mass trafficking of tens of thousands of people including Chinese citizens. Deceived by enticing advertisements offering secure overseas employment opportunities, these victims often find themselves in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, confined within fortified compounds, subjected to participate in various fraudulent activities such as foreign currency scams, cryptocurrency schemes and deceptive romance investment shams.
“There is certainly a degree of dramatisation (in the film), but many of the scenes do resemble actual accounts from these scam operations,” said Benedikt Hofmann, deputy regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
As detailed in a recent report from the UNODC, Cambodia is estimated to harbour at least 100,000 victims of trafficking for forced criminality. That parallels similar figures cited a month earlier by the Office of the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights.
Most of these scam compounds are identified as located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital; the port city of Sihanoukville, and in Pursat and Kandal provinces on the borders with Vietnam and Thailand. Recent reporting has also linked affluent and politically connected Cambodian elite to some of the scam operations.
“It must be extremely hard for Cambodian law-enforcement agencies to conduct their work to the maximum capacities against these compounds if reported connections to powerful people are confirmed true,” said Chhengpor Aun, a Cambodian political observer studying at the Hertie School in Berlin.
“The ball is now in the court of the new Cambodian government, which is still in the incubation period to gather its steam.”
“They have to admit that the responses thus far have been inconsistent in both public communication (too puzzling) and substantial legal actions (too little too late) against these criminal compounds,” Aun said.
“No More Bets” topped the Chinese box office in its nearly two-month theatrical run, grossing more than US$530 million. The film was thereby approved by China’s censorship regime and even advertised under the slogan “one more viewer, one less fraud victim”.
“This film would not see the light of day without Beijing’s blessing,” Aun said.
The film reflects Chinese frustration after years of little success in joint endeavours with Cambodian counterparts to curb the scam industry exposing Beijing’s impatience with its allies’ governance issues, especially when they harm Chinese nationals and their global reputation, noted Aun.
According to Chinese state media, prior to filming, Ao’s team collaborated with the police and the anti-fraud centre to gather three years’ worth of overseas online fraud cases. Scriptwriting spanned a year and a half, involving the analysis and distillation of tens of thousands of cases.
Just four days before the release of the film, on August 4, Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism announced the launch of “China Ready,” a national initiative that aims to improve Chinese-language services across seven tourism-business categories including hotel, restaurant, resort, travel guides and souvenir shopping. The end goal, according to the ministry, is to ensure that customer-relations workers can speak Mandarin and provide standardised services to Chinese tourists.
Before the pandemic, of the 6.6 million tourists who made trips to Cambodia in 2019, more than 35% were Chinese. That year the tourist industry represented 12% of the country’s GDP, equivalent to US$4.92 billion.
Yet only 106,000 Chinese tourists visited Cambodia in 2022, less than 5% of 2019 numbers. Some report that while the sluggish recovery has to do with China’s own strict “zero COVID” policy, it is undeniable that the threat of the cyber-scam industry has discouraged tourism from China.
As Cambodia’s indignation about the film continues to simmer, the lack of resolve is ever-apparent.
“The public outrage probably does focus too much on the movie as a symptom of the complexity, but it also shows an increasing realisation that leaving the situation unaddressed will result in consequences not just for public security and stability, but also for regional and economic ambitions,” said Hofmann.
“That said, we are likely only at the beginning of a transformation where organised crime accelerates the use of technology and AI to expand operations,” he added.