BANGKOK, Thailand -- In Southeast Asia's crime-infested Golden
Triangle, Chinese entrepreneur Zhao Wei is constructing a sprawling
casino resort and airstrip despite being sanctioned by the U.S.
Treasury Department as a "threat to the United States" because of his
"horrendous illicit activities".
In addition to those projects in northwest Laos, Mr. Zhao is expanding
his financial reach into northeast Laos' prehistoric Plain of Jars and
delving into southern Laos close to Vietnam's frontier.
U.S. allegations sanctioning Mr. Zhao include "engaging in drug
trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and
wildlife trafficking, much of which is facilitated through the Kings
Romans Casino," the Treasury Department said.
"Zhao is an unsavory Chinese gangster, and founder of the Hong
Kong-registered Kings Romans Group," Paul Chambers, an American
lecturer in Southeast Asian studies at Thailand's Naresuan University,
said in an interview.
"Geopolitically, he represents the informal head of a semi-formal,
strategically located, base for China where Laos, Myanmar [Burma], and
Thailand come together -- the Golden Triangle.
"There are increasing numbers of powerful Chinese businessmen
ensconced in Laos who have loose relations with Beijing. Some have
become crime bosses in the region," Mr. Chambers said.
Mr. Zhao's core project -- the Kings Romans Casino -- is being built
on the Mekong River which the Golden Triangle countries jointly
patrol, led by armed Chinese vessels, to tackle cross-border crime.
Several of the resort's tall modern buildings, including a
crown-topped casino, already form a panoramic display visible from
Thailand's side of the strategic river.
The Kings Romans Casino reportedly relies on Chinese currency, Chinese
staff and police.
It enjoys economic sweeteners bestowed by the secretive,
authoritarian, one-party Laotian government, including a 99-year lease
which began in 2007 in Bokeo province's Special Economic Zone [SEZ].
"It is one of several Laotian enclave developments in which China
appears to exercise a form of extraterritoriality by administering
almost every aspect of the zone," the Lowy Institute in Australia
warned in a June report.
"Zhao Wei’s longer-term vision imagines the SEZ as a valley of shiny
futuristic towers, artificial lakes, sports stadiums, industrial
parks, and a pharmaceutical research center.
"These plans are not fanciful," the institute said.
The Golden Triangle earned its prestigious nickname decades ago from
easy profits gained by international smugglers who bought illicit,
locally grown opium from impoverished tribes and refined the black tar
into heroin powder for addicts worldwide.
In relatively underdeveloped southern Laos, Mr. Zhao met Saravan
province's Governor Phoxay Xayasone in March to survey land for
another airport, and more agricultural and tourism projects, plus an
upgraded road to nearby Vietnam, according to U.S. government-funded
Radio Free Asia.
He also wants a slice of northern Laos' Plain of Jars for tourism and
agricultural businesses, despite its UNESCO World Heritage status
protecting the region's hundreds of mysterious stone cylinders
scattered in Xieng Khouang province.
In October, closer to his Kings Romans Casino, Mr. Zhao ceremoniously
broke ground to construct a $50 million port at Ban Mom village
further north upriver on the Mekong, near China's Yunnan province.
The thankful Laotian government sent Deputy Prime Minister Bounthong
Chitmany to the event.
The port will include cargo facilities, offices, a hotel and other
infrastructure capable of handling Golden Triangle countries' imports
Mr. Zhao is apparently shrugging off the Treasury’s Office of Foreign
Assets Control, and has not been prosecuted by Beijing.
In 2018, the Treasury designated "the Zhao Wei network" as
"transnational criminal organizations (TCO) that pose a threat to the
United States," said Treasury Under-Secretary for Terrorism and
Financial Intelligence, Sigal Mandelker.
"The Zhao Wei crime network engages in an array of horrendous illicit
activities," Ms. Mandelker said at the time.
"Operating largely through the Kings Roman Casino, the Zhao Wei TCO
facilitates the storage and distribution of heroin, methamphetamine,
and other narcotics for illicit networks," the department said, after
coordinating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Mr. Zhao denounced the Treasury's sanctions as "a unilateral,
extraterritorial, unreasonable and hegemonic act of ulterior motives
and malicious rumor-mongering."
His response in 2018 -- in Chinese and Lao languages -- described his
resort and other facilities as "legal, ordinary business operations,
supervised by the legal authorities of the relevant countries that
have not harmed the interests of any country or individual."
Mr. Zhao, from northeast China's Heilongjiang province, previously
operated a casino in Mong La, in Myanmar's chunk of the Golden
Triangle across from Yunnan province.
He also ran a casino in China's gambling-friendly Macau, a former
Portuguese colony near Hong Kong.
China's government and citizens are the biggest foreign investors in tiny Laos.
They are involved in several 99-year leases in the lightly populated
countryside which abound in natural resources amid steep mountains,
forests, and rivers.
The top foreign investment is a Chinese-funded, $6 billion high-speed
railway, nearing completion under China’s international Belt and Road
The railway links southern China at the Laotian border town of Boten,
runs vertical across northern Laos, and reaches the capital Vientiane
on the Mekong River where it forms part of the Laos-Thailand border.
Its 260 miles (414 kilometers), 75 tunnels, and 67 bridges are
expected to begin operating in 2022.
China predicts the train will eventually create a lucrative and
influential China-Indochina Economic Corridor connecting Shanghai and
In comparison, U.S. relations with Laos are mostly trapped in the
horrors of Washington's deadly legacy.
In an unusually blunt admission to a former enemy nation,
then-President Obama told an audience in Vientiane in 2016:
"Over nine years, from 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped more
than two million tons of bombs here in Laos -- more than we dropped on
Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II.
"It made Laos, per person, the most heavily bombed country in
history," Mr. Obama said in the Lao National Cultural Hall.
"Villages and entire valleys were obliterated. The ancient Plain of
Jars was devastated. Countless civilians were killed," he said during
the first visit to Laos by a U.S. president.
"Our new partnership will continue to deal with the painful legacy of war."
His remarks reflected much of Washington's current relations with Vientiane.
"U.S. involvement in the country, through bilateral relations, is more
like a compensation for the consequences of the Vietnam War, where the
U.S. left unexploded bombs," Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political
scientist at Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani University, said in an
Washington's multi-million-dollar aid includes clearing countless
unexploded U.S. bombs which litter the countryside and continue to
kill and maim unsuspecting villagers.
Washington also engages with Vientiane through a regional Mekong-U.S.
Partnership, which evolved from Mr. Obama’s Lower Mekong Initiative to
prevent China manipulating the upper flow of the Mekong with dams.
"The Mekong-U.S. Partnership excludes China...signifying the challenge
of the rising power of China," Mr. Titipol said.
Benefitting from two powerful rivals vying for favor, Vientiane's
ruling Communist Party is "able to consolidate its power through good
relations with both China and the West," he said.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction
books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos,
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes,
Smugglers & Freaks" are available at