Zhao Wei has repeatedly disputed US government allegations of wrongdoing regarding his ambitious economic and casino activities in Laos. He plans even more.
The controversial Chinese gaming mogul and businessman sees himself as a legitimate developer. He operates Kings Romans Casino in Laos’s Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone [SEZ] in Bokeo province. A business empire associated with the casino has resumed construction on an airport in an effort to boost tourism. It is scheduled to open next year.
Zhao wants to build a gaming property, resort, and airfield in northwestern Laos. It is near the border with Thailand and Myanmar. Zhao is also looking to develop properties is Northeastern Laos. It is known as the location of the prehistoric Plain of Jars, which is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
He wants to invest, too, in Southern Laos, including the building of an airport. That is close to the border with Vietnam.
Earlier, Zhao ran a casino in Mong La, Myanmar, also located in the Golden Triangle. He operated a casino in China’s Macau region, too.
“Geopolitically, he [Zhao] represents the informal head of a semi-formal, strategically located base for China, where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand come together: the Golden Triangle,” Paul Chambers, a lecturer in Southeast Asian studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University, told the Washington Times.
“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,” he added.
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,” the Lowy Institute in Australia reported in June, The Times said. China has extensive control over the area and already has invested heavily there.
For instance, China is funding a $6 billion high-speed railway stretching over 260 miles. When operational next year, it will provide train service from Southern China at the Laotian border, through Northern Laos, and to Vientiane on the Mekong River.
In addition, Zhao last year began construction on a $50 million port at Laos’ Ban Mom village. It is near China’s Yunnan province. The project will include buildings for cargo, an office complex, and a hotel.
Threat To US
But in 2018, Zhao Wei’s activities were labeled by the US government as a “transnational criminal organization” [TCO] which was “a threat to the United States,” Sigal Mandelker, former Undersecretary of Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, was quoted by The Times.
“The Zhao Wei crime network engages in an array of horrendous illicit activities,” Mandelker said in 2018.
Operating largely through the Kings Romans Casino, the Zhao Wei TCO facilitates the storage and distribution of heroin, methamphetamine, and other narcotics for illicit networks,” the Treasury Department claimed.
The Treasury Department has alleged Zhao engaged “in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and wildlife trafficking.”
But Zhao responded that the casino-resort and other operations are “legal, ordinary business operations.” They are “supervised by the legal authorities of the relevant countries, that have not harmed the interests of any country or individual.”