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    Dark Rumors on Chinese Social Media Alarm the Thai Gov’t

    Rumors that Chinese tourists are being kidnapped and trafficked in Bangkok have spread like wildfire on Chinese social media in recent days. Thai authorities are scrambling to contain the fallout.

    A bizarre rumor that a famous bar in Bangkok is being used to lure Chinese tourists into abduction and prostitution has spread like wildfire on Chinese social media in recent weeks, forcing the Thai government to repeatedly deny the story.

    When China scrapped its strict “zero-COVID” policies in late 2022, Thailand hoped that the return of Chinese tourists would help boost its flagging tourist sector. Before the pandemic, Thailand was China’s most popular overseas tourism destination, with 11 million people from China visiting the country in 2019.

    But the Thai government now appears concerned that this recovery may be under threat, with officials taking several moves over the past few days to reassure people in China that the country is a safe place to visit.

    Since China relaxed its restrictions on international tourism in January, hashtags related to the increased cost of traveling to Thailand and safety issues in the country have become top-trending topics on Chinese social media on several occasions.

    But the story took a darker turn in early March, when a Chinese blogger began spreading rumors about supposed new threats to Chinese tourists in Thailand via his channel Xin Yi Lin Lin on the video platforms Douyin and Bilibili.

    In the video, the man claimed that criminal gangs had moved their bases from Myanmar and Cambodia to Thailand, and had joined forces with anti-Chinese Western forces to target Chinese people.

    The conspiracy, the man said, centered around Bangkok’s 76 Garage bar, a popular destination for Chinese tourists that is famous for using attractive male models to serve and entertain customers.

    The gangs were using these hot Thai men to lure Chinese women into prostitution, the man claimed. They would then use the women to lure Chinese men to Thailand, where they would be kidnapped and murdered, before having their organs harvested, he added.

    The video went viral across Chinese social media, before being scrubbed from the platforms a few days later. However, content from the video shared by other users has remained online, and continues to circulate widely.

    Though there is no evidence to support this theory, more and more bloggers have amplified the rumor — and added new ones — over recent weeks. Many of them pointed to a now-deleted notice issued by a local Chinese government to support their theory.

    On Feb. 7, a local anti-fraud center in central China’s Hubei province issued a notice asking local residents not to travel to Southeast Asia unless necessary. The notice attracted huge online discussion on the day it was released, causing the local government to take it down immediately and issue an apology.

    Officials have since clarified that the notice was only directed at local residents under suspicion of being involved in criminal activities overseas. Telecom scam groups have become a real issue in recent years, with several Chinese gangs setting up operations in Cambodia.

    The explanation didn’t end the rumors, however. Fears about Thailand flared up again when several Chinese influencers traveling in the country stopped posting for several days in mid-March, causing wild speculation that they may have gone missing.

    All four of the women have since posted updates to their accounts, clarifying that they had arrived back in China safely, domestic media reported March 26.

    The Thai authorities responded to the rumors directly on March 21, with government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisiri addressing the issue at a press conference. He called the information spreading on Chinese social media “fake news,” and said the prime minister had ordered the Ministry of Tourism and Sports to clarify the situation with the media.

    Two days later, the Thai Embassy in China issued a notice on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, reassuring Chinese tourists that Thailand was a safe place to visit.

    Shortly after, the Global Times, a Chinese state-run media site, published an editorial criticizing those spreading rumors about Thailand for “making up ‘small essays’ to earn traffic.”

    “China itself is a victim of Western media’s slanders, demonization, and political manipulation,” the editorial said. “Chinese netizens should consciously resist such behavior and should not impose it on others.”

    Despite these official denials, it appears that some Chinese travelers are still nervous about their upcoming trips to Thailand. In recent days, there has been an uptick in posts on the social platform Xiaohongshu from tourists looking to travel in groups due to safety concerns.

    One traveler from the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, surnamed Na, told Sixth Tone that he was originally planning to travel to Thailand alone, but he had decided to look for travel partners and go as part of a group.

    After Na posted that he was looking for travel partners on Xiaohongshu, he received private messages from nearly 400 people interested in traveling to Thailand together.

    “Many people said that they had been affected by recent public opinion and were more aware of safety issues,” Na said.

    Editor: Dominic Morgan.

    (Header image: Tourist visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions, in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 7, 2023. EPA/NARONG SANGNAK/IC)