Chinese influencer charged in Thailand for 'breaking visa laws' after video on women's safety sparks backlash

Ziyu Wang; Nana Plaza Bangkok
Chinese social media influencer Ziyu Wang issued an apology for her video after it sparked a backlash in Thailand Photo credit: Ziyu Wang / Facebook; Andre Malerba / Bloomberg / Getty Images / File

By Heather Chen and Kocha Olarn of CNN

Thai police are taking legal action against a Chinese social media influencer for allegedly flouting visa rules, days after she came under fire for a video she made that portrayed a popular Bangkok nightlife district as being unsafe for women.

Police Major General Phanthana Nutchanart, deputy chief of Thailand's Immigration Bureau, told CNN that Ziyu Wang, a Chinese national who has been traveling around Thailand, was found to be selling goods online while on Thai soil - breaking visa laws.

Wang, 28, had arrived in Bangkok on November 2 on a tourist visa, Thai police told CNN. 

"She worked here without a work permit and police are processing her," Nutchanart said.

"We have summoned her and informed her of the charge of violating (her) visa."

The case comes at a tricky time for Thailand as it tries to woo back Chinese tourists after the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also highlights how social media influencers can find themselves in legal hot water overseas when content they produce causes a public backlash. 

Wang has a combined social media following of more than 3 million people. She mostly posted on Douyin, China's version of TikTok, as well as some Western social media platforms that are not available inside China.

On December 5 she shared a video on Douyin while walking around the streets near Nana Plaza, an area notorious for its racy adult-themed bars.

In the video, Wang suggests the area is unsafe for women as she films what appears to be several Western men looking at her. The clip went viral and was perceived by many in Thailand as criticising the country's image and over-exaggerating the danger.

She was summoned by police days later and admitted to creating the video. She later issued a public apology, denying that she intended to damage Thailand's reputation, officials said. 

"I understand that my words have caused unintended offense and misinterpretations and I deeply regret any negative impact they may have had on Nana District and the Thai people," the 28-year-old influencer said in a video posted to Facebook.

"I hold the utmost respect for the rich cultural heritage and vibrant spirit of Thailand. I have always intended to promote a positive and accurate portrayal of Thai culture to a broader audience," she added.

CNN has contacted the Tourism Authority of Thailand for comment.

Reputational damage 

Thailand's efforts to win back lucrative Chinese tourists have been complicated by perceived safety concerns that have filled Chinese social media this year about visiting Thailand, fuelled in part by rumours and fears that claimed travellers could be kidnapped and sent across the border to work in scam centers in Myanmar or Cambodia.

Those fears were further inflamed with the release this year of two Chinese films "No More Bets" and "Lost in the Stars", both popular thrillers set in fictional Southeast Asian countries where people are lured to work in scam factories or for organised crime.

Then in October a shooting at a popular Bangkok shopping mall killed a Chinese citizen.

Despite rolling out a series of incentives over the past year - like visa-free travel for Chinese tourists - Chinese tourist arrival figures are still "way, way down," Gary Bowerman, a leading Asia travel and consumer trends specialist, told CNN. 

"It takes time for traveller confidence to rebuild after three years of the pandemic and recent Chinese movies certainly didn't help," he said.

Video spreads on Chinese social media

Wang's video, which is no longer visible on her accounts but has been reposted elsewhere, starts off with her walking around the streets of Nana and features several incidences of her being stared at or approached by foreign men and local street peddlers.

Throughout the video she speaks to the camera and comments about what she feels is the lack of safety standards in Bangkok. 

At one point, she stops by the side of a road to use her phone and is approached by a foreign man, who she quickly waves off.

"That man came to say hello and asked me 'how are you today.' If he had pulled me away, I would not have been able to escape," Wang predicted.  "That's why I feel women should not come here (to Nana) alone," she continues.

"It's very dangerous because you do not know the kinds of people you would meet… the 99 percent hanging around are not good people."

Wang's video comes amid a "new consciousness" about security and personal safety among many Chinese travellers, according to Bowerman. 

"You're looking at a young, more conscious demographic - less mass travel groups - that gravitate towards personalised itineraries that allow them to pick and choose what they want to do," Bowerman said.

Chinese travel influencers, he adds, are especially powerful because of the way China's tech sphere operates.

"Chinese influencers (command) apps and social media platforms that the rest of the world does not use, and they bring very, very large audiences that have been in isolation in the country for three years… which gives them the power to influence public perceptions about destinations - both good and bad," Bowerman added.

On Thailand's part, it is tapping into Chinese influencers to help promote the country to tourists. In November, Thailand's tourism board signed an agreement with Chinese tech firms to roll out campaigns and travel promotions. 

'Thailand needs Chinese tourist money'

Thailand has some of the world's strictest criminal defamation laws and tourists have previously found themselves in trouble for posting unvarnished views online.

In 2020, an American man was briefly arrested and detained for two days after a hotel complained about a negative review he wrote on a travel site in a case that generated widespread media coverage.

The man was eventually released after hashing out a deal with the hotel where he apologised, Reuters reported

Before the pandemic, Thailand recorded 11 million Chinese tourist arrivals in 2019. The numbers deteriorated severely even after the reopening of borders in 2022 - only 273,567 arrivals from mainland China.

It hopes to increase that figure to 5 million by the end of 2023.

"Thailand's government has been very enthusiastic about courting back Chinese tourists, and the government has always been particularly sensitive about the tourism industry and its reputation - it's hugely delicate," said Greg Raymond, a Southeast Asia researcher and senior lecturer at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Studies at the Australian National University.

"At the end of the day, Thailand needs Chinese tourist money and the government would definitely be concerned about a Chinese tourist doing a vlog like this that gets massive attention from other Chinese travellers - that is definitely not the image they want." 

But the damage might already be done.

"What 2023 has taught countries like Thailand as well as the rest of the region is that governments have to really rethink how they look at the Chinese tourist market - they cannot expect to go back to the travel volumes or the travel behaviours of 2019 because now is a new era," said Bowerman.

"The pandemic has changed the Chinese market and destinations now have to be very, very aware of the new challenges."