China wants to kill thriving industry; the Philippines aims to tame it
With its marble walls, gilded lobby and sign with Chinese characters that can mean “paradise on earth,” the Skytop International Club never tried to be subtle.
Opened last year on the fringes of the Makati business district, Manila’s Wall Street, the club became known as a place where men would spend big money on booze and women. The decadence ended on Sept. 30, when officers from the National Bureau of Investigation, or NBI, barged in and rescued 95 women — 91 of them Chinese — believed to be victims of sex trafficking. Seven Chinese men and seven local cohorts were arrested.
Raids like this are expected to intensify in 2020, as Manila’s and Beijing’s law enforcement agencies team up to stop a vicious cycle of vice blamed on the dramatic rise of online casinos.
Businesses known as Philippine offshore gaming operators, or Pogos, rake in billions of dollars a year. Most are Chinese-run and cater to Chinese gamblers. President Rodrigo Duterte’s government sees them as a valuable source of revenue and has resisted calls from China to ban the industry.
Just last week, Philippine police arrested 335 Chinese employees of one local gaming operator for alleged investment scams and other financial crimes. Officials say prostitution rings like Skytop’s suspected operation are fueled by Pogo insiders eager to spend their spoils.
Now, the involvement of Chinese law enforcement will only turn up the heat.
On Dec. 12, a “high level” Chinese delegation met with officials from the NBI to discuss sharing information on Chinese criminal elements in the Southeast Asian country. “They are very much interested in operations by Philippine law enforcers to go after the syndicates or members of the Chinese mafia who are involved in prostitution, illegal Pogo operations and kidnapping,”
A day after the visit from the Chinese delegation, NBI agents raided a brothel in Las Pinas City, south of Manila. Five Chinese women believed to have been forced into prostitution were rescued, while their suspected Chinese pimps were arrested and are facing deportation.
China’s pressure campaign against online casinos is part of a broader push “to expand its policy reach across borders where substantial expatriate Chinese-national populations are living and working,” said Sam Ramos-Jones, business development director at PSA Consultancy, which tracks the gaming sector.
But while critics like Villanueva and China would prefer to kill this golden goose, the Duterte government hopes to tame it and extract more money from it.