Many Chinese Nationals Leave Cambodia after Online Gambling Ban Imposed

Posted on: September 10, 2019, 06:34h. 

Last updated on: September 10, 2019, 02:11h.

Up to 120,000 Chinese nationals may have exited Cambodia during the two weeks following an Aug. 18 online gambling ban, with the exodus likely tied to the prohibition, Cambodian officials claim. But American experts question government assumptions.

Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen stopped issuing new licenses for online gambling last month, which has led to many Chinese nationals leaving the nation. (Image:

Bradley Murg, director of Global Development Studies at Seattle Pacific University, where he also teaches political science, told the 120,000 figure “does not sound accurate to me.”

From the [Radio Free Asia] report, it appears to be the total number of Chinese passport holders who have departed, which would include tourists, those travelling for business, etc., rather than a specific count of Chinese residents who have left,” Murg said about the Cambodian estimates. “My sources in Sihanoukville gave me a number of 10,000 or so having left by Wednesday of last week.”

Murg added that in the city of Bavet, “estimates from Chinese sources was around two-thirds of the gaming folks [left]. But no one had a solid estimate as to the size of the community as a whole.”

He further explained, “Quite a large number of them de-camped to Phnom Penh, preparing to leave, while some are considering staying and looking into other business opportunities. Those that depart will likely go to China first, with many making their way to the Philippines in light of Manila’s decision to keep online gambling open, despite Chinese pressure to close the sector down.”

Murg added that the “only folks departing” are those associated with online gambling. “The broader Chinese community — construction, the garment industry, etc. — has been entirely unaffected, and I don’t expect any decline in Chinese investment in Cambodia in the near future, outside of this particular sector,” he said.

Last month, Cambodia announced it would stop giving out licenses for online gambling to help curb criminal activity, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency in China. Sophal Ear, a professor of diplomacy and world affairs at California’s Occidental College, said those leaving following the ban appear to have worked in online gambling, “but money extortion seems to be the less savory term for it.”

For instance, in April, a casino in Sihanoukville was accused of beating eight Chinese gamblers suspected by casino management of cheating. “The prime minister’s order in mid-August to stop issuing new licenses and to let existing licenses expire was followed by a new round of arrests in Sihanoukville and Bavet, with suspects handed over … to the Chongqing police and deported to China to face criminal charges there,” Murg said.

Also, Ear explained that “folks employed in legitimate business would not head for the exits in such large numbers and so quickly unless they feared arrest or the imminent collapse of their revenue model.”

Math Checked

Cambodia’s Interior Ministry has estimated that over 6,000 Chinese nationals left Cambodia daily since the online gambling ban was announced two weeks ago. On the other hand, some 5,000 Chinese tourists and business investors visit Cambodia daily, Ath Bony, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Immigration, told Radio Free Asia.

While Sophal Ear said that the 120,000 figure “appears credible” – “This doesn’t appear to account for entry as well. In other words, this sounds like a gross departure number, and not a net departure number,” Ear explained to

That same story says 5,000 come in every day, but 6,000 leave,” Ear added. “Doesn’t that mean 1,000 net leave per day? I don’t know how they’re doing their math over at the Immigration Department, but that’s how I read it.”

So, Cambodia “has gone from a net importer of Chinese nationals to now a net exporter of Chinese nationals,” he said. “Cambodia is decreasing its stock of Chinese nationals overall by the tens of thousands, which is a real inflection point when you consider that up until recently, the country was building its stock of Chinese nationals, with more entering than leaving.”

But Ath Bony told Radio Free Asia, “So far, the numbers of those leaving and coming are mostly similar, with the departures slightly more than arrivals. While we don’t know the exact reason for the Chinese leaving, it might be because of the ban on online gambling, which has forced those who relied on the gaming to return home or move to other countries.”

In total, there are approximately 250,000 Chinese nationals living in Cambodia, including around 100,000 in both Phnom Penh and Preah Sihanouk province, according to Cambodia’s National Police, the news report said.

Will Gambling Employees Return to Cambodia?

Longer-term, it is unclear what the future of online gaming will be in Cambodia. “Cambodia was basically used as a place to harbor shady characters who were extorting folks back home,” Ear said. “Now they’re scurrying out of Cambodia.”

He added that “Cambodia has an image problem, with Chinese nationals running amok, and so the authorities can look like they’re finally doing something about it. Of course, whether this is really the end of it remains to be seen. It’s easy to buy a plane ticket out. It’s also easy to buy a plane ticket back in. This could just be a lay low and regroup period. The key is whether a year from now the situation in Cambodia will really be different.”