Cambodia’s government says it will not permit the screening of a hit Chinese action film based on the region’s cyber-scam industry, claiming that it would damage the country’s international reputation.
According to a report published yesterday by the local news site Cambodianess, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has asked the Chinese Embassy not to screen the feature “No More Bets.”
“We asked the Chinese Embassy not to show ‘No More Bets’ movie,” the news site quoted ministry spokesperson Sum Map as saying. “The Embassy is still working on it. If there has been a leaked or a broadcast already, the ministry calls on the local authority to ban the movie in Cambodia.”
“No More Bets” tells the story of a Chinese programmer and a model who travel to a foreign country on the promise of high-paying jobs but become trapped and forced to take part in online gambling scams, including in Cambodia.
The film has been a massive hit in China, topping the box office during the busy summer moviegoing period.
The film’s director, Shen Ao, based the film on the wave of criminality that has swept across mainland Southeast Asia, particularly the rise of online scam operations connected with Chinese organized crime groups. As depicted in “No More Bets,” these operations have been built on the mass trafficking of tens of thousands of people, including many from China. Lured by ads promising safe and secure jobs abroad, these victims have traveled to Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar where they have been held in fortified compounds and forced to operate a range of scams, including foreign currency frauds, illegal cryptocurrency schemes, and romance investment scams.
Over the past few years, Cambodia has become a major center of these criminal operations, which emerged from the country’s large, China-focused gambling sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. As detailed in a report released this week by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) “at least 100,000 victims of trafficking for forced criminality” in Cambodia alone, and “scam compounds” have been identified in the capital Phnom Penh and the port city of Sihanoukville, as well as in Pursat and Kandal provinces and on the country’s borders with Vietnam and Thailand.
In the face of some limited crackdowns in Cambodia and the Philippines, UNODC noted, scam operators have relocated to remote parts of Myanmar that are under the control of armed rebel groups with long-standing ties to organized crime. However, there is ample evidence that the operations continue to flourish in Cambodia. Scam operations have also been identified in Laos, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
According to the Cambodianess report, the Ministry of Culture is concerned that the storyline in “No More Bets,” part of which takes place in Cambodia, could discourage investors and international tourists from visiting the country.
Only 106,000 Chinese tourists visited Cambodia in 2022, down from 2.36 million in 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic. While the sluggish recovery has to do with China’s own strict “zero COVID” policy, which made international travel tricky, it is undeniable that the “scamdemic” has discouraged tourism from China.
“No More Bets” has likely reinforced these negative perceptions. As the China Project’s Zhao Yuanyuan noted in an article last month, the movie “has ushered a new wave of fear on Chinese social media, with many vowing to avoid Cambodia and Myanmar at all costs.”
“The moment I walked out of the theater,” it cited one Weibo user as saying, “I felt like it was the end of a nightmare in Myanmar.”
Indeed, it seems that the Chinese government is hoping for exactly this: that the film will raise public awareness of the risks of falling victim to human trafficking. As my colleague Luke Hunt has pointed out, the film was not only approved by China’s censors but has been promoted in China under the slogan “one more viewer, one less fraud victim.”
The Cambodian government should be less concerned with the reputational impact of a film about cyber-scams than about the scams themselves, which, despite some recent crackdowns, continue to operate in various parts of the country. If the government wants people to stop seeing Cambodia as a byword for organized criminality, it should redouble its efforts to eradicate that criminality.
This, of course, is no simple matter, given that recent media reporting has linked criminal scam operations to wealthy and influential members of the Cambodian elite. As a result, it is perhaps no surprise that the only thing left to do is silence those calling attention to the problem.