This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
At least two people arrested in Singapore last month for their alleged involvement in a billion-dollar Chinese money-laundering syndicate have ties to London real estate worth more than $56 million, company and land records reviewed by Radio Free Asia and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reveal.
The previously unreported assets show for the first time the intercontinental reach of a network that Singapore police said in a statement is suspected of overseeing “overseas organized crime activities including scams and online gambling.”
All 10 of those arrested on Aug. 15 were born in China, but nine were granted Cambodian citizenship during the past five years, decrees from Cambodia’s Royal Gazette show. Several also hold Cypriot, Turkish and ni-Vanuatu passports, Singapore police said in a statement.
Since the arrests, Singapore authorities have seized $1.3 billion in cash, assets and real estate, a prosecutor told the city state’s High Court earlier this month, according to state broadcaster Channel News Asia. The seizure is believed to be the largest in the city state’s history.
Su Haijin, 40, initially attempted to flee when police knocked on his bedroom door. He was quickly apprehended, however, having broken several bones jumping from the second-story balcony of the house in which he was staying. Now in a hospital, he has been charged with resisting arrest and having $2.9 million of criminal funds in his bank account from an illicit online gambling operation.
Police have frozen $117 million of Singaporean assets belonging to Su and his wife, Wu Qin, including $1.5 million in cash, 13 properties and five cars valued at $86 million and four bank accounts containing $4.9 million.
Spreading the wealth
Prosecutors in Singapore told the High Court last week that a third party was attempting to sell or transfer assets believed to belong to Su outside of Singapore.
While the prosecutor did not identify the assets in question, RFA and OCCRP have learned that in December 2021, Su was the face of a £43.3 million ($54 million) deal to take over two adjoining properties in London’s Oxford Circus shopping district.
The purchase was made by New Yihao Limited, a company Su Haijin is linked to in corporate records. The company is registered in Jersey, a U.K. crown dependency off the coast of France that serves as an offshore tax haven.
The properties, 283 Oxford Street and 11 Princes Street, back onto each other. The Oxford Street property hosts a multistory Footlocker shoe shop. The Princes Street building appears half abandoned and dilapidated, despite being a Grade 2-listed historical building, which means the owner is legally obliged to provide a level of upkeep.
With some 72,000 pedestrians pounding its pavements every day last year, Oxford Street has long been among Europe’s most popular shopping destinations and, as such, home to some of London’s most sought after commercial real estate.
A law passed last summer – the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act – requires that all U.K. real estate held by foreign companies must file details of its beneficial owners with the newly formed Register of Overseas Entities.
New Yihao complied with the law on March 23 this year, revealing that the company is controlled through a trust. Company records don’t reveal New Yihao’s full corporate structure and ownership but stipulate that Su holds “directly, or indirectly, more than 25% of shares in the entity” in his capacity as a trustee for the trust.
While the Economic Crime Act is supposed to guard against money laundering, experts such as Ben Cowdock of Transparency International caution that a loophole in the law shields from disclosure the beneficiaries of trusts, such as the one controlling New Yihao.
“This loophole prevents those investigating financial crime from identifying the true owners of thousands of properties across the country,” Cowdock said.
However, a spokesperson for the British tax office said information about the ownership of trusts is available to it and law enforcement agencies.
Should Su turn out to be the owner of New Yihao as well as its trustee, the company and its Oxford Street assets could be vulnerable to an Unexplained Wealth Order, through which courts can compel individuals to prove their assets were obtained through legitimate wealth or face forfeiture.
Business service provider Fiduchi Group helped set up New Yihao’s structure just two months before its London real estate foray, corporate records reviewed by RFA show. One of Fiduchi’s major clients is luxury yacht-broker Imperial Yachts and its owner, Evgeniy Kochman, both sanctioned last year by the U.S. Treasury for assisting Russian oligarchs to “hide, move and maintain their wealth and luxury assets.” Fiduchi and lawyers for Su did not respond to a request for comment.
Just days before the Oxford Circus sale was settled, Lin Baoying, another suspect arrested in Singapore last month, purchased a penthouse-level apartment in a 65-story, luxury residential skyscraper in Canary Wharf, London’s premier financial district, for £1.78 million ($2.2 million), real estate records show.
Lin and her partner, Zhang Ruijin, were arrested together in the exclusive Pearl Island enclave at Singapore’s Sentosa Cove, with authorities confiscating $100 million in assets and cash from the pair, including bank accounts with a total balance of $16 million. Both have been charged with forging documents falsely indicating they had sold real estate in Macau to justify transfers into their accounts with Singaporean banks. Lawyers for Lin and Zhang did not respond to a request for comment.
“A very large amount of Chinese wealth does flow into the U.K. property market, so while these look like very large transactions, they’re not unusual ones,” said Oliver Bullough, author of “Butler to the World,” which investigated the ways in which the British state and private sector court dirty money from around the world.
Chinese capital controls forbid Chinese citizens from moving more than $50,000 out of China each year. As a result, those who wish to move out larger amounts, even if those funds were legally earned, must do so through money launderers and underground banks. When being laundered out of the country in such a manner, licit wealth inevitably mingles with illicit funds.
“Law enforcement agencies in this country are in quite a weird position in that the money that leaves China is not illegal, but the money Chinese people receive in the west often is illegal,” Bullough said.
That Su and eight of his fellow arrestees had Cambodian citizenship will come as little surprise to many, given the allegations Singaporean police have leveled against them. Cambodia has become a hub for both illicit online gambling operations and cyber-scam rings. A United Nations report last month estimated there are 100,000 people being held captive in the kingdom and forced to work in these underworld businesses.
The masterminds are often born in China, like those arrested last month, and many have acquired Cambodian citizenship.
Individuals associated with these criminal activities have for some time now been parking their wealth in Singapore, the nearest international financial center to Cambodia. A 2021 RFA investigation found that Rithy Samnang, the son-in-law of Cambodian People’s Party Senator Kok An, partnered with Chinese fugitive Xu Aimin in a string of businesses, including a casino resort, that has since been tied to forced labor and scam operations. Rithy Samnang died in May 2022, but corporate records show he was the majority owner of a Singaporean holding company, Cloverland Capital Pte Ltd.
The pattern became so prevalent that in summer 2022 Singaporean banks began classifying Cambodians born in China as “super high risk” customers, according to a Singaporean finance professional who asked not to be named to speak publicly about a sensitive issue.
Recent years have also seen Singapore offer safe haven to Chinese flight capital. The result has been a mingling of licit and illicit money flows in the city state’s business and real estate sectors similar to that of the U.K. While the government’s approach until now has been hands off, last month’s arrests appear to signal a shift.
“Singapore is based on law, they say, ‘These are our requirements to enter the country, if you have it we’ll give you an employment pass,’” a diplomatic source in Singapore said, requesting anonymity to speak frankly. “Singapore’s idea is just don’t break the law in our country, this has always been the motto. This is why we’ve got a bunch of Chinese criminals living here.”