The ads on the Telegram messaging service’s White Shark Channel this summer had the matter-of-fact tone and clipped phrasing you might find on a Craigslist posting. But this Chinese-language forum, which had some 5,700 users, wasn’t selling used Pelotons or cleaning services. It was selling human beings — in particular, human beings in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and other cities in southeast Asia.
“Selling a Chinese man in Sihanoukville just smuggled from China. 22 years old with ID card, typing very slow,” one ad read, listing $10,000 as the price. Another began: “Cambodia, Sihanoukville, six Bangladeshis, can type and speak English.” Like handbills in the days of American slavery, the channel also included offers of bounties for people who had run away. (After an inquiry from ProPublica, Telegram closed the White Shark Channel for “distributing the private information of individuals without consent.” But similar forums still operate freely.)
Fan, a 22-year-old from China who was taken captive in 2021, was sold twice within the past year, he said. He doesn’t know if he was listed on Telegram. All he knows is that each time he was sold, his new captors raised the amount he’d have to pay to buy his freedom. In that way, his debt more than doubled from $7,000 to $15,500 in a country where the annual per capita income is about $1,600.