Gambling Tycoon's Partners Abandon Him as Extradition to China Looms
As embattled gambling tycoon She Zhijiang fights extradition from Thailand to China, partners in one of his companies have denied doing business with him –– despite appearing onstage together at a launch for a massive commercial zone in Cambodia, which is now embroiled in human trafficking and cybercrime allegations.
“We DO NOT consider She Zhijiang to be a business associate,” Wu Jianfeng and Deng Pibing said in an email sent by a spokesperson.
Wu and Deng, two of the main figures behind Cambodia’s Dara Sakor Special Economic Zone (SEZ), have been involved in a company with She since 2020, according to Hong Kong corporate records acquired by OCCRP.
She was arrested in Thailand in August 2022 on a warrant from China for allegedly running illegal online gambling operations in Southeast Asia. His business empire stretched from the Philippines to Myanmar, where he was point man for Shwe Kokko, an SEZ that was also at the center of reports on cyber scams and modern slavery.
But She’s corporate connection to the Dara Sakor SEZ, which takes up about 360 square kilometers on the Cambodian coast, has never been clear –– until now.
Hong Kong corporate records show that She owns a company called Cosmos Rise Investment Limited along with Wu, while Deng is listed as the firm’s director. Deng and Wu also run Zhengheng (Cambodia) Limited, which is the main real estate company developing Dara Sakor.
Wu and Deng said in an email that they were first introduced to She in 2018, and decided to go into business together buying and developing land. They said they quickly discovered he was “unreliable and this relationship was terminated.”
However, a photograph from a Chinese website shows the three men in the limelight together at the launch ceremony for the Long Bay Entertainment section of Dara Sakor in November 2018. She is pictured onstage at the event, along with Deng and Wu, pouring sand onto a placard with the Long Bay logo.
Wu and Deng’s Zhengheng company is building the Dara Sakor SEZ along with the Union Development Group (UDG), a state-backed Chinese firm. Dara Sakor includes a large port and an international airport –– which have fed suspicions that the SEZ is a front for Chinese military interests.
The U.S Treasury Department sanctioned UDG in 2020, saying it was controlled by Beijing, which has “used UDG’s projects in Cambodia to advance ambitions to project power globally.”
Aside from that geopolitical controversy, accusations of organized criminality swirl around Dara Sakor. Media including Al Jazeera and Cambodia’s Voice of Democracy reported extensively on large-scale human trafficking at the SEZ.
People from around Asia were allegedly lured to Dara Sakor on the pretense of legitimate jobs, but were then held there against their will and abused. The trafficking victims were forced to work on “pig butchering” scams –– contacting people online, and then manipulating them into transferring money for fake investments.
Some cyber scams were allegedly based out of complexes built by Deng and Wu, who told OCCRP: “We were cleared of any involvement in these alleged illegal activities.”
The human trafficking accusations echo those made against She’s big project in the Shwe Kokko area, on Myanmar’s restive frontier with Thailand.
She spearheaded the Myanmar SEZ, which is purportedly worth US$15 billion and, like Dara Sakor, includes hotels and casinos. Several Asian governments have reportedly rescued their citizens from complexes at Shwe Kokko and nearby sites where they were trafficked into working on cyber scams.
“We also found out the exact area where they were –– Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone,” said Philippines Senator Risa Honteveros in a November speech where she mentioned She by name.
Representatives of She’s companies did not respond to requests for comment, and the name of his lawyer in Thailand has not been made public. But Thai media have recently published statements from Yatai International Holding Group, the main company behind the Shwe Kokko SEZ.
“She Zhijiang, currently imprisoned in Thailand and appealing the Thailand government’s decision to extradite him to China, questions why China government is singling him out for persecution,” said a June 9 statement published in the Bangkok Post.
Yatai argued that Thailand should not extradite She since “he is already a Cambodian citizen. Chinese law does not allow suing a foreigner using China’s domestic law.”
Renouncing Chinese citizenship is a common tactic for people from China who run online gambling operations, which is illegal in their home country, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government-backed think tank in Washington, D.C.
“To insulate themselves from Chinese laws, citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) involved in these activities have obtained a second nationality,” the institute said in a 2020 report.
Deng was also born in China and now holds Cambodian citizenship –– along with a passport from the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda.
In addition to acting as director of Cosmos Rise, and CEO of Zhengheng (Cambodia) Limited, Deng controls two more Hong Kong firms involved in the SEZ development in Cambodia: Dara Sakor Hotel Group Company Limited, and Dara Sakor Hotels and Resorts Company Limited. Those two firms share the same Hong Kong address as Cosmos Rise.
Corporate records show that yet another shareholder in Cosmos Rise also holds an Antigua and Barbuda passport, and is a director in Zhengheng Limited.
Wu and Deng at first told OCCRP that, finding She to be “unreliable,” they had “terminated operations of Cosmos Rise, and it is now inactive for any business operations.”
But after being told the Hong Kong registry still lists the company as active, they said: “We are still in the process of consulting our lawyers to close down Cosmos Rise.”