Corporate records show Zhou was a business partner of millionaire Ming Chai, the nephew of Chinese president Xi Jinping. In Australia, Zhou set up a network of Chinese Communist Party influence organisations under the auspice of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front operation and supported by the Chinese consulate in Melbourne, even though he was subject to a long-standing Interpol red notice.
According to court files and briefings from local and overseas security sources, Zhou also operated with the triads – Chinese organised crime groups which run money laundering, human trafficking and drug trafficking rackets in Australia and Asia and who have historically run casino high-roller tours known as junkets.
Zhou’s activities ultimately drew intense attention from ASIO, as revealed in an expose by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes in 2019 that sparked a series of state and federal investigations.
His detention and extradition from Fiji appears to be a byproduct of intensive efforts by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission to attack organised crime groups who penetrated Crown and other casinos, forcing figures such as Zhou to move their operations overseas.
The ACIC’s covert operations targeting industrial-scale money laundering was flagged by the agency’s chief, Mike Phelan, last July, when he revealed it was “actively addressing the significant risks of money laundering through casinos, particularly through casino junkets”.
But at the height of his powers, Zhou was flying around Australia with Ming Chai on private jets chartered by Crown or other Australian casinos. He donated $26,600 to NSW Labor in 2015, met Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at a 2012 function that Zhou helped host and, in 2014, formed a business with the premier’s former adviser Mike Yang.
Leaked casino files show Crown paid Zhou and his agents – who he controlled from his palatial Toorak home in Melbourne – tens of millions of dollars to lure high-roller gamblers from China. Crown paid Zhou’s representative at its Perth casino $28 million in a single financial year.
Between 2012 and late 2016, Crown was keen to please Zhou and the high rollers he brought to Australia by vouching for them through the visa process. In one leaked email, Crown staff prepare to vouch to Australian visa officials about a high roller on the basis that he was “referred by Crown VVIP Mr Zhou” and because “Crown staff … has known Mr Zhou [for] more than 10 years”.
Crown so valued its relationship with him that casino contractors told The Age and the Herald the casino agreed to let him run a boutique gift shop on its premises. Even after the relationship cooled in late 2016, Zhou earned commissions from Crown via his shadowy network of junket sub-agents.
Court files allege that Zhou had a second source of funds through suspected organised crime activity, including extortion and money laundering. He has been accused in various Chinese courts of extortion, standover tactics and even arranging for acid to be thrown in a man’s face.
“The facts of a crime are clear and the evidence was reliable and sufficient,” according to a 2013 court filing from the Intermediate People’s Court of Wuhan province. It also alleged Mr Zhou had been “misappropriating huge amounts of money” and had “absconded abroad.” Although law enforcement agencies in Australia never charged Zhou, multiple sources said he likely laundered tens of millions of dollars through Crown.
The casino group has never fully explained why it partnered with Zhou when Chinese court records would have revealed he was suspected of serious organised crime and was a fugitive, having fled charges in China in around 2012.
Had Crown performed thorough due diligence on Zhou or his known agents or associates, it would have discovered myriad money laundering red flags. For instance, his business partner Ming Chai should have been marked by Crown as a “politically exposed person” because of his relationship to the Chinese President. Mr Chai’s Australian wife still gambles regularly at Crown’s high-roller room.
Australia’s anti money laundering agency Austrac has warned casinos that “Because [politically exposed persons] hold positions of power and influence they can be a target for corruption and bribery attempts, and ultimately for money laundering activities.”
Chinese language newspaper reports in 2014 implicated Chai in serious alleged corruption. A Zhou business partner, Tian Di, who helped run his Crown high-roller junket tour operation, was also implicated in alleged corruption in China, according to court records.
It appears at least some in Crown suspected Zhou posed a reputational risk to the casino firm.
In around 2015, a senior Crown’s security executive helped arrange for a security firm that consults to Crown and is run by former policeman to work for Zhou. The executive wanted the firm to keep Zhou “out of trouble,” according to one source close to Zhou. This security firm’s use of a serving policeman to work as a bodyguard for Zhou is being investigated by Victoria Police’s ethical standards unit.
In around 2016, Crown banned Zhou from casino grounds due to his erratic behaviour (sources close to him say he was taking drugs, seeing prostitutes and prone to outbursts), but he was still able to run his high-roller business at the casino via sub-agents.
The task of finding out what Crown knew or should have known about Zhou has fallen to multiple inquiries now examining the casino firm’s dealings with organised criminal groups.
In previous public statements, Crown’s now former executive chairman John Alexander stressed that the firm complies with Australian anti-money laundering laws and maintained rigorous auditing procedures. Mr Alexander, who stood down from his position in January as part of the fallout from the Age, Herald and 60 Minutes expose, also previously attacked reporting about its relationship with Zhou and other alleged organised crime figures as misleading and sensationalist.
Until his detention overseas, Zhou was heavily involved in three Australian organisations aligned with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front operation – the organisation which works to influence Chinese diaspora communities and overseas political systems to advance the aims of the Communist Party.
According to an online report, one of Zhou’s organisations was “fostered” by the Communist Party’s “Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council” and has “the strong support of the Melbourne Chinese Consulate” as it has strived to earn “the trust of the motherland” and the Chinese government.
Zhou’s fate in China is likely to remain a mystery. Analysts have suggested that triads who engage in “patriotic” work for the Communist Party can receive special protection from the state.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won eight Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.