The Empire of the Golden Triangle

Alexis Gravel/Golden Triangle loop, Thailand

The Golden Triangle is a place where men die for the flags of unrecognized nations and jugs of acetic anhydride. This is where the crates of polymer QBZ-95 automatics get dumped and where mercenaries haul surplus M16s from the Cambodian jungle to lovingly refurbish with teak furniture.

These frontiers are run on commodities that no honest man should touch. Once, it was opium. The Kuomintang and the CIA fought running battles with the Shan United Revolutionary Army and the Royal Lao Army to control the trade. Methamphetamine came next. The drugs travel down trails that no map shows, joined by gems, furs, weapons, and women and children in bondage.

These frontiers are up for grabs. Point at any spot on the map. Perhaps you end up right near the border of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Region: that tract of jungle has belonged, nominally, to Ming loyalists led by Muslim generals, to the British, to the Federated Shan States, to defeated Kuomintang generals on the run, to the Communist Party of Burma, to the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army, and to the Tatmadaw.

Or maybe you run your finger down the Mekong. That port there, on the Laos side—whatever the lines on the map say, they don’t really describe it. If it is really in the control of the Lao army, then what faction within it? Which Shan State militia boss on the Myanmar side has to assent to the arrangement? Which local gangsters protect the nearby Chinese rubber plantation?

This frontier is built for men like Zhao Wei.

In the Golden Triangle, everyone knows his name. The Chinese expatriate is a man that can tolerate risk. He goes where few have gone before. Apart from retreating Kuomintang troops, disaffected Red Guards joining Chinese militias in Kokang, and Yunnan traders, not many pioneers went to the Southeast Asian highlands. Men like Zhao Wei could find frontiers within their own country. In an age of political stability, economic recalibration, and involution, the internal frontiers are disappearing. The borderland beckons Zhao Wei.

We won’t meet him in person. He was never a man that sought fame or publicity. The threats of powerful rivals and sanctions levied by the United States Department of the Treasury have made him even more elusive.

He is a wealthy man but it is hard to know how he made his fortune. He has a knack for being in places where quick money can be made without a paper trail: Special Economic Zones carved out of South China after Reform and Opening Up, the triad-controlled underground Macau underworld, and the Myanmar borderlands. His latest venture is running casinos and hotels in a concession in Laos, leased for 99 years from local authorities in 2007.

Unless you are a Lao government official with land to sell, it is hard to get an audience with Zhao Wei. But we glimpse him occasionally in promotional materials for his casinos and hotels in Laos: a tall man, wiry and trim, with a face that looks like it was carved by chainsaw from Manchurian pine.

What we know of his biography begins like this: Zhao Wei is a Han Chinese man from Jiamusi in Heilongjiang. That is not a minor detail. That is proof that the frontier is in his blood. The hint of Shandong in his accent is also proof. Like most Han Chinese from the areas north of Vladivostok, he is the descendant of those tens of millions of impoverished coastal farmers that made their way beyond the Great Wall before and after the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911. The Manchu rulers of the Qing ended their ban on Han settlement in the north as a way to deter the Russians, already flooding into Siberia, from grabbing more territory than they had already. In the end, the Japanese got it and they sent their own waves of settlers and soldiers to pacify the frontier.

There were shootouts there, too. Manchuria was up for grabs. The economy of Manchuria ran on commodities men were willing to die for. We could speculate that perhaps Zhao Wei’s ancestors once moved heroin for the Kwantung Army, just as we could speculate that Zhao Wei has himself moved narcotics through his casinos—the United States Treasury Department alleges exactly this. Perhaps, like Zhao Wei himself, they were also patriots. Whether that meant riding with the bandits or gouging Japanese fur merchants on plague-infected marmots, we can only guess.

Zhao Wei was the fifth of nine children. His family was not rich. There are rumors that he suffered under the Cultural Revolution, but details are hard to come by. His father died young. He dropped out of elementary school and became an itinerant hustler of traditional medicine, before throwing in with a timber speculator.

The story continues all over China, which was then in the grips of reform. Zhao appeared in Guangdong in the 1980s, then in Macau in the 1990s. This is where the rumors of links with 14K triad boss Wan Kuok-koi come from. When the Chinese state began cleaning up shop in their repatriated Special Administrative Region—locking up men like Wan Kuok-koi—Zhao went to Mong La to run gaming operations under the watchful eye of armed ethnic militias.

His patriotism guided him in those foreign lands. At least, that’s part of the legend. Drifting in the borderlands, he claims that he was guided by the example of Wen Tianxiang, the Song Dynasty official executed by Mongol invaders for his unwillingness to cooperate with their rule.

The story of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone is less murky than the legend of Zhao Wei. Corporate registration documents, reports in Lao state media, exposés from NGOs, and Treasury Department sanctions spell out that story for anyone willing to do the research.

The Golden Triangle SEZ occupies forty square miles on the Laos side of the Mekong border with Myanmar. Zhao Wei’s Hong Kong-registered Dok Ngiew Kham Group has 85 years left on its lease from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

The name and location suggest a Lao experiment in marketization and attracting foreign direct investment—perhaps something like Shenzhen in the 1980s, or the Kaesong Industrial Region in North Korea. But this is not the equivalent of familiar state-backed investment zones. The Golden Triangle is only nominally under the control of local authorities. The Chinese enclave is closer in spirit to the international zones of the past: the artificial island that the Dutch traded from in the Nagasaki harbor in the Edo period, or the International Zone in Tangier.

The main economic drivers of the Golden Triangle SEZ are gambling, hospitality, and vice. Zhao Wei builds hotels and casinos and supplies the things that visitors to hotels and casinos might desire. There are prostitutes and a go-kart track.

This region is isolated from the Laotian capital of Vientiane. Nor does Laos supply its material existence. Instead, the SEZ is hooked into the Thai power grid and Chinese telecommunications. The only reliable way to get there from the capital is a flight into Ban Huay Xai Airport, forty miles south of the SEZ. This will soon be supplanted by a Dok Ngiew Kham Group-administered airport, which has been completed but is not yet operating. A port is being constructed upstream that will make it even easier to bring in workers and goods from outside. Before the border controls required by a global pandemic, most guests came south from Yunnan or more often across the Mekong from Thailand.

When the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on Zhao Wei, its officials accused him of running a transnational criminal organization with the assistance of the United Wa State Army and other Myanmar ethnic militias. They charged Zhao Wei with using the SEZ as a base for trafficking in human beings, narcotics, and endangered species.

Whatever merit the Treasury Department sanctions have, they verify that Zhao Wei is not a pushover. Pushovers cannot do business on the frontier.

In 2011, a dispute between Zhao Wei and a Shan State militia boss named Naw Kham resulted in a bloodbath on the Mekong. On top of charging taxes on boats moving up and down the river, Naw Kham was kidnapping guests of the Golden Triangle SEZ and ransoming them. When Zhao Wei refused to pay up, 13 crew and passengers on two cargo ships bound for the Golden Triangle SEZ were executed and dumped in the river. Their cargoes of apples, garlic, and nearly a million tablets of methamphetamine were left untouched.

As Naw Kham said before getting a fatal, intravenous dose of sodium thiopental at a Ministry of Public Security facility in Kunming: “The Golden Triangle turns good men bad.”

Zhao Wei has powerful friends with considerable firepower. That doesn’t end with his alleged relations with heavily-armed Myanmar ethnic militias. It was the Chinese armed forces that closed in on Naw Kham and shot it out with his men, although they eventually served him up to Lao police to avoid accusations of violating the sovereignty of bordering countries. In the end, the Golden Triangle SEZ’s ambiguous sovereignty on the frontier is only tenable because of state protection.

Zhao Wei is not an official agent of the state. It would be a mistake to take praise for the Belt and Road Initiative and his general Chinese patriotism as a sign of some relationship to upper echelons of power. He has run afoul of the state several times, most recently in Myanmar, when Chinese authorities clamped down on traffic to cross-border casinos.

But it is in the interests of both the Chinese and Laotian states to support men like Zhao Wei. There is no neocolonial project in Southeast Asia; there are few high-level geostrategic goals being accomplished by building casinos in Laos. These states need their frontiers opened for other reasons. And they need men like Zhao Wei because he is capable of things that their agents are not.

The work being done by Zhao Wei on the Mekong has been summed up in a classical phrase: “opening up territory by cultivating the wasteland.”

In imperial China, cultivating the wasteland was the main occupation of troops at distant garrisons. Grazing animals and maintaining crops allowed the garrisons to be self-sufficient. Opening up territory and holding onto it was important to the empire; finding a place to send landless men was equally important.

In the nineteenth century, this is what the Qing dynasty hoped to accomplish by sending tens of millions of peasants to Manchuria. Geostrategic goals relating to foreign powers were secondary; this was a domestic mission. The Qing still gave up Outer Manchuria to Russia in the Treaty of Peking in 1860. Nor was Chinese presence any deterrent to Japanese invasion.

After 1949, dealing with landless men was the reason for all the many agricultural collectivization schemes of modern China, right up through the Great Leap Forward. If there was surplus manpower after collectivization, it was thrown at industrial mobilization, or monumental projects, like the Sanmenxia Dam. Some people did cultivate wastelands in a more literal sense: hundreds of thousands of workers were sent to Qinghai and Xinjiang in the 1950s and 1960s. Whether imperial, nationalist, or communist, the Chinese state relied on the efforts of millions of frontiersmen to accomplish the internal domestication that the central power could not.

After Reform and Opening Up, the wasteland to be cultivated was urban China. It was rural residents that drove reform in the 1970s and 1980s. The cities were conservative; the countryside was experimental. Since they were so closely linked to the command economy and contemporary politics, urban work units were not under any pressure to experiment with marketization.

In rural areas, as long as quotas were met, local cadres were happy to allow the contradictions of aggressive collectivization to be resolved through experimentation. Peasants secretly divided up land again, established unsanctioned markets, and local party bosses allowed thriving commune and brigade enterprises to engage in light industry. When marketization was made official policy, it was far easier for the peasant entrepreneur to make a go of it in the city. They were less likely rooted to a work unit and already had a few years of experience in the unsanctioned market economy.

As tens of millions of people had flooded Manchuria a century before, waves of internal migrants now arrived in the cities. Zhao Wei was one of them. He claims to have been in Guangdong by 1982.

Today, conditions have changed yet again. Clean-up campaigns and stratospheric housing prices dissuade potential migrants to the city. The competition is now not even necessarily to succeed but to maintain a foothold in the urban cores at all.

This is a problem because China needs frontiers. The floating population created by marketization between the 1970s and 2000s is being called back from the deltas by state policy, but some can never go home again. They need places to go and it is better if they do not disrupt the return of the party-state. The cultural and economic energy unleashed by reform has not dissipated. It needs places to be safely burned off. All the better if it can expand state wealth and power. The desire for wealth and adventure still burns in the hearts of millions and it must be satisfied before it is turned against the state.

State planners have tried to provide new frontiers. Apart from softly propagandizing a return to the countryside, they have also built places like Zhengzhou’s Zhengdong New Area and the cities of the Bohai Economic Rim. Those schemes are limited. The Chinese state has less tolerance for the type of chaotic energy that drove it since 1949. Xi Jinping’s China is not revolutionary. The reforms carried out now are to consolidate wealth and move power back to the center. The great frontier of corruption has been closed—at least, internally.

The Belt and Road Initiative and investment by policy banks is one way that the party-state can support foreign frontiers instead. The direction is important: the initiatives support the entrepreneurs.

China needs Zhao Wei because it needs frontiers, but cannot directly govern them. Zhao Wei provides leadership, and his willingness to operate in both the legal and criminal spheres is an asset for everyone involved. Although it was not planned by the state, his Golden Triangle SEZ thrives because of state support that followed it. Zhao Wei benefited from state security forces operating on the Mekong, and also from expanded rail and road links, but he took the jump without them. That is not an unusual arrangement. There is a collaborative process between the state and frontiersmen like Zhao.

Zhao Wei is capable of things that the Chinese state or state-owned enterprises are not. The underdeveloped zones of Southeast Asia are not easy places for legitimate parties to do business. There is an example of this in Cambodia, where one of the point men for development was a reformed Wan Kuok-koi. The reality in the top halves of Myanmar and Laos is that ethnic militias have immense power in places the national state and military do not. The Chinese state has sometimes put itself in the position of cutting deals with national governments and warlords fighting them, but that risks legitimate hands getting dirty. China needs Zhao Wei because it needs go-betweens.

In Myanmar, Zhao Wei worked with ethnic Chinese leaders who govern areas that have often slipped beyond the control of the military government. He was reportedly close with Pheung Kya-shin, whose Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army has in turn been at war with the Myanmar government since 2009. The leaders of these territories must be courted to ensure that Chinese borders remain secure, but it can’t always be done openly.

The power of the warlords and of legitimate but corrupt regional leaders also means that sovereignty is fuzzy. The governments of Myanmar and Laos claim to control all of the territory in which Zhao Wei has operated over the past two decades. The reality on the ground suggests otherwise. He does business at the pleasure of ethnic militias and regional officials commanding de facto fiefdoms.

The businessman and the cultural or religious entrepreneur are usually the best types to open frontiers. They are less dogmatic and more pliable. The energies of young men can be burned up expanding the frontier by force, but it is better to send peaceful pioneers. Unarmed bachelors hold frontiers.

Zhao Wei’s project is not the first of this type of special economic zone in Laos, but it seems like it might be the most permanent Chinese-led project.

It follows the Savan-Seno Special Economic Zone, located in the city of Savannakhet and dominated by Thai investment. Another predecessor was the Boten Special Economic Zone, on the border with China’s Xishuanbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. The reasons that Laos has allowed these projects are simple: they benefit the state. Laos is poor and corrupt. In the short term, the leasing of land to projects like the Golden Triangle SEZ provides a bump to state revenue.

What makes this an attractive frontier is that local officials in Laos have more tolerance for chaos than their Chinese counterparts. They have experience managing zones of ambiguous sovereignty. They are used to dealing with men like Zhao Wei. Benefits flow to officials and their patrons. Laotian workers are cut out of the deal. The lack of market reform or economic modernization in Laos means that there is no large floating population, as there was in China in the 1980s. Rather than turning up at remote locations, like the Golden Triangle SEZ or Boten SEZ, the limited flow of migrant labor is mostly to urban centers or west to Thailand. Another way to say this is that China is in the market for frontiers and Laos has a surplus, combined with a shortage in people to cultivate them.

The Golden Triangle SEZ looks a bit like previous efforts, but its location makes it unique: it is far enough away from the border to avoid direct intervention from China, as happened in Boten, but close enough to attract cross-border migrant workers—and it sits just across the border from Myanmar’s Shan State, which has become even more lawless in the time since the Golden Triangle SEZ was founded.

If the Treasury Department and the reports of NGOs are to be believed, Zhao Wei purchased the Golden Triangle SEZ concession as a fur-trading post, processing tiger pelts and other animal products taken out of Myanmar. This makes for interesting comparisons between the SEZ and the eighteenth-century Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts in old Rupert’s Land—a vast territory that once took up about half of what is now Canada.

Like the old HBC merchants, Zhao Wei tapped state and corporate power to expand into zones of fuzzy sovereignty, put down a challenge from indigenous opponents, and then set about bringing in the Chinese equivalent of coureurs de bois. In his case, the settlers were young men from southwestern Hunan that had worked in construction and timber in Laos and Myanmar since the 1990s, as well as other workers willing to endure frontier conditions. Eventually, some of the frontiersmen settled down, usually married local women, and started running trading businesses dealing in teak and rubber, operating guest houses, or cultivating nearby land as smallholders.

Frontiers are necessary now for the same reason they were necessary both in the dying days of the Qing and at the height of the British Empire: they soak up men with nothing else to do.

Estimates of Chinese residents in Laos vary, but the number is likely over 300,000, most of them recent arrivals. As early as 2015, international reports focused on the dangers of Chinese migration to Laos. There are no available numbers for Chinese residents in Bokeo Province, Ton Pheung district, or the Golden Triangle SEZ itself. The Bokeo Provincial Statistics Center has a figure of 15,434 people living within the SEZ. If we remove Thai, Laotian, and other nationals living there from the figure, it might approach a rational increase from a 2011 estimate of ten thousand.

It is marriage to local women that frequently ties men to Bokeo. The stories of intermarriage between Laotian women and Chinese workers, like the story of Zhao Wei himself, are framed in radically different ways in the international and Chinese press: Radio Free Asia routinely reports on brides being kidnapped back to China, while Chinese state media writes about romances blooming.

The attraction of marrying Laotian women has become a major feature of popular writing on the Chinese experience in Laos. The promise of taking home a wife for the dowry price of approximately $3000 is appealing in a country with thirty million bachelors. Anecdotally, most marriages are registered with the Laotian government. The government maintains a registration of marriages to foreigners, but does not provide statistics. Notably, the legal age for women to be married in China is 20; in Laos, 32.7% of married women aged 20-24 were wed before the age of 18, 7.1% before the age of 15.

One of the men that I found through a message board for “Laos hands” told me that most long-term Chinese residents in the area around the Golden Triangle SEZ were from Hunan, as well. If they didn’t work on the casino project, they ran guest houses or shops to the south and north. He was from Hunan, too, and had come down to work for a construction company. He had worked in Foshan until 2008. After a divorce, he went back to Hunan. He had been in Laos since 2010—first in Botan, on the border, then in Vientiane, then Huay Xai, south of the SEZ. He still picked up jobs as an electrician, but most of his income came from running a company that rented mini-buses. A short video on his WeChat Moments showed him delivering a second-hand car to his second wife’s village.

In the two years since the pandemic began and border controls were introduced, workers continued entering Laos illegally. Signs point to restrictions on entry and exit being lifted soon. The workers will return. For now, the Chinese labor pool is still deep enough to send out hungry young people to sustain projects in the borderlands. When competition in city and suburb seems stacked against them, there are young people that will choose the frontier.

If it is successful, places like the Golden Triangle SEZ might become demographically self-sufficient and civilized enough to attract men and women with a lesser pioneer spirit. If the Golden Triangle SEZ continues to grow at the same rate, it will be larger and more populous than any center outside of Vientiane itself.

Zhao Wei will probably not live long enough to see any of his projects reach their full potential. True pioneers search irrationally for new frontiers. He is already searching again. His next venture is reported to be a golf course near the Plain of Jars, and he has also looked at land along the Laos-Vietnamese border, which sits on a key bend in the Sepon River, crucial to trade between the two countries.

In most cases, it is the state that closes the frontier when the power of the pioneers it has supported becomes stable. It is hard to imagine that it will be the Chinese state doing that directly, so it can only be the Laotian state that makes the official move—whatever pressure occurs behind the scenes. That is too far in the future to speculate about. It was wise of Zhao Wei to sign a 99-year lease. For a little while longer, the emperor remains far, far away.

Dylan Levi King is a Tokyo-based translator of modern Chinese literature and a writer on contemporary online culture. You can follow him on Twitter @dylanleviking.