Lying prone in his hospital bed, visibly bloated and physically weak, a man in his early 30s receives a steady supply of blood as he takes a stream of video calls from eager journalists.
The man, dubbed Xiao Li by Chinese press, was admitted to the hospital in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on Feb. 11. The story he told medical staff about what had brought him there, the one that would soon also grip Chinese media, was a disturbing one.
Xiao Li said that he was the victim of human trafficking, and that he had endured months of abuse, including having his blood harvested on seven occasions, at the hands of his captors.
The Chinese national said he was drugged in China, trafficked through Vietnam, and arrived in June in Sihanoukville, a Cambodian coastal city with a growing reputation for criminality. Sold between the city’s many online scam operations, he said that in August he ended up with a group who would harvest his blood as he refused to participate in their work.
“They drew the most from me. There was another person like me, also blood type O, we were similar. That person left before me. He was sent away,” Xiao Li was quoted as telling Cambodian media outlet Voice of Democracy on Feb. 17.
It’s unclear how he escaped his captors and ended up in the Phnom Penh hospital, but he told reporters that following the seventh draw, his captors were unable to take any more.
“I didn’t have any blood left, so there wasn’t much else to squeeze out of me. They wanted to get the last bit of money out of me,” he said.
VICE World News has not been able to independently verify Xiao Li’s claims. But according to a social media post by Guangdong Charitable Foundation Association, a Chinese group working with victims of trafficking in Cambodia, when found he had severe edema, a distended belly from ascites, and a scarred liver. His arms and head were also covered with needle punctures. As a result, nurses struggled to locate his blood vessel while trying to give him a blood transfusion.
In the days after Xiao Li was admitted to the hospital in critical condition, the organization helped to source blood donors on social media to save his life. They received eight bags of blood—their initial donation target—in less than a day, as Xiao Li’s story garnered sympathy from Chinese nationals in Cambodia.
The Chinese Embassy in Cambodia did not respond to VICE World News' request for comment. But in a public statement posted on Feb. 15, it said that they had sent staff to visit Xiao Li in hospital. The statement said that he had been duped by a false job advert and smuggled into Cambodia by criminals who drew “large quantities of his blood… until he was in critical condition.”
“The Chinese embassy would like to take this opportunity to remind Chinese citizens who are keen to work in Cambodia to use legitimate channels, and not fall prey to false job advertisements promising high salaries,” the statement read.
A little over six years ago, the Cambodian city of Sihanoukville was little more than a hamlet of beachside bungalows and low-rise houses, best known as a brief stop on Cambodia’s backpacker trail on the country’s southern coastline.
Today it’s a burgeoning city of half-finished skyscrapers, semi-paved roads, casinos and building sites as the settlement has expanded in chaotic sprawl, fuelled by Chinese investment in an economy centred around gambling.
With that rapid, barely-regulated development has come a rise in criminal activity as primarily Chinese criminal syndicates set up shop in the city. There are regular reports of kidnappings, murders and drugs, while a growing number of criminal enterprises in the city are sustained by the forced labour of trafficking victims.
“To put it bluntly, Chinese people now see Sihanoukville as a haven for crime. A city of kidnappings,” Wang, who is part of a group helping to rescue Chinese human trafficking victims in Cambodia, told Voice of Democracy in November.
Ou Virak, founder of Cambodian public policy think tank Future Forum, told VICE World News that weak rule of law was central to the problem.
“It is not completely surprising given Cambodia's extremely low rule of law global ranking. This means law enforcement is either lacking or easily evaded through bribery or other means,” he said.
The headlines surrounding Chinese criminality in Cambodia will be unwelcome for the Communist Party, he added.
“China is likely to be unhappy with reputation damage these reports are having on their soft power, particularly during a time when they need more friends to expand their sphere of influence,” Virak said.
Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan told VICE World News that the Chinese and Cambodian governments were collaborating closely on the issue of foreign criminal syndicates operating in the country, and that the “situation is under control.”
“The situation is improving as a number of Chinese citizens are going back home,” he said. “Criminals are blacklisted and can't come back to Cambodia. Crime gangs are lower than before. Right now we have cracked down so that online [criminal operations] are not allowed to operate anymore.”
“If you’re in Cambodia right now, acquaintances in China are probably reaching out to ask about your safety. Everyone feels that Cambodia is unsafe and wants you to return to China.”
But in Sihanoukville, a precinct known colloquially as Chinatown remains notorious for hosting a cluster of companies engaged in scam operations. It’s from one of these that Xiao Li had reportedly escaped.
Many victims are Chinese nationals who have responded to adverts promising high-paid jobs, but are then trafficked overland through Vietnam and end up in debt bondage traps, forced to work in online gambling operations and call center scams. Media reports of workers facing sexual abuse, violence, and being sold off for thousands of dollars to other scams have become common in recent months.
A Chinese national who is working in Cambodia and has close knowledge of the issue, speaking to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue for the Chinese government, said she has seen many Chinese conned into going to Cambodia, including minors who ended up in the sex trade.
“A lot of them don’t have many qualifications, and are attracted by slightly higher wages overseas,” she said.
The case is already making headlines back in China, with Xiao Li’s story sparking concern about the safety of Chinese nationals in Cambodia. On Chinese microblogging site Weibo, topics related to Xiao Li have racked up millions of views, with many discussing the horror of his kidnapping and the conditions he endured.
According to the anonymous source, the case has only added to growing fears surrounding criminal activity in Cambodia.
“Xiao Li’s case has had a big impact, now that it’s trending online in China,” she said. “If you’re in Cambodia right now, acquaintances in China are probably reaching out to ask about your safety. Everyone feels that Cambodia is unsafe and wants you to return to China.”
If nothing else, she hopes that Xiao Li’s experience serves as a cautionary tale for young Chinese nationals who may otherwise be lured to Cambodia on promises of high wages.
“A lot of people were fooled by so-called high salaries,” she said. “I think the case of Xiao Li should warn youths in China not to have pipe dreams.”
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