What they weren't told is this: According to the United States, Zhao is one of the world's most notorious narcotics traffickers.
The US Treasury Department accuses Zhao
of running a global criminal organization involved in child prostitution, the illicit trade of wildlife including tigers, rhinos and elephants, and drug trafficking -- all from his private corner of Laos.
Zhao's company, the Hong Kong-based Kings Romans, manages a 100-square-kilometer (39-square-mile) swathe of land in the country's northwest, called the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ). Zhao is the chairman of the GTSEZ, which was named after the historically lawless border region where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. For years, the Golden Triangle was the world's largest source of heroin. Now it pumps out an estimated tens of billions of dollars worth of
synthetic drugs annually, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Hong Kong corporate records show Zhao is the majority shareholder of Kings Romans. Both Zhao and Kings Romans were sanctioned by the US government in 2018 for their purported role in the narcotics trade and other alleged crimes -- meaning he was barred from using the US financial system, and any funds he holds in US banks likely would have been frozen as well.
Zhao denies the allegations and says he is a legitimate investor
. In interviews, he has said his goal is to turn the GTSEZ into a major tourist destination and bring jobs to one of the world's poorest places.
Right now, the region's biggest attraction is a huge casino that caters largely to visitors from mainland China, where almost all gambling is illegal, and foreigners, because gambling is outlawed for Laotians.
But there are plans for massive expansion.
The government of Laos allows the GTSEZ to operate with limited oversight from the central authorities, in theory to spur more investment. But officials outside the country worry that Laotian authorities signed a Faustian bargain, trading control in the border region to an alleged drug kingpin in exchange for economic growth.
Zhao's exact role in the new port, which is about 12 miles upriver from the casino, isn't known. But the fact that he attended the groundbreaking ceremony alongside a Laotian deputy prime minister and the provincial governor has caught the attention of law enforcement and government officials outside the country.
If Zhao is the legitimate investor he says he is, the project could simply be a smart example of vertical integration. Constructing a modern port in an unfrequented part of Laos could help service a new tourist city.
But if Zhao is who the US government says he is, experts such as Jeremy Douglas, the Southeast Asia representative for the UNODC, worry that any involvement by the alleged drug kingpin could result in an increase in the production and export of illicit narcotics from the Golden Triangle. That's especially worrying considering that drug smugglers appear to be increasingly using Laos as a synthetic narcotics trafficking corridor
"To put a piece of infrastructure like this in the hands of this gentleman and his companies is, frankly, unbelievable," Douglas said. "We're really concerned."
Zhao's alleged ties to the project
The actual company behind the new investment, according to the Vientiane Times article, is Osiano Trading Sole Co., Limited. Khonekham Inthavong, whom state media reported was Osiano Trading Sole Co.'s president, said the project was meant to boost trade in goods and services in Laos, especially in the Golden Triangle.
Inthavong said the project is a joint venture "between domestic and foreign partners highly experienced in construction across the region," per the Vientiane Times. He added that his company was established in 2012 "under Lao regulations with a network of business interests covering tourism development and agriculture, road construction and ports, real estate, insurance and a non-deposit taking microfinance institute."
However, Inthavong and Osiano Trading Sole Co. appear to have sprouted up out of nowhere in the past two years. Searches in Laotian media and online of both Inthavong and his company turn up news of a few investments this year, but nothing before 2019.
A search through Laos' business registry muddies the waters even further. It shows Osiano Trading Sole Co. was registered in July 2020 by Yoma Inthavong. It's unclear if that individual is related to Khonekham Inthavong.
But Khonekham Inthavong registered a different business with a similar name, Osiano Land and Investment Sole Co., in 2018. It's unclear what relationship these two businesses have with each other.
CNN was unable to reach Osiano Trading Sole Co.; Osiano Land and Investment Sole Co.; or Khonekham Inthavong for comment. Neither of the companies had a phone number, email address or exact physical addres