A former executive for a Chinese construction company was found guilty on Friday of U.S. charges that he forced Chinese laborers to work in the New York area under a form of debt bondage.
Dan Zhong, 49, was convicted by a jury in Brooklyn federal court after a nearly three-week trial. Zhong had served as the president of U.S. Rilin Corp, a unit of privately held Chinese construction conglomerate China Rilin Construction Group, which is headed by Zhong’s billionaire uncle Wang Wenliang.
Zhong appeared impassive as the jury foreperson read the verdict, which found him guilty on five counts. Robert Cleary, a lawyer for Zhong, declined to comment.
Zhong, who was previously an accredited Chinese diplomat, was arrested in November 2016 and has been jailed since then.
Prosecutors said that he played a leading role in a scheme in which Rilin offered workers in China jobs in the United States, but required them to pledge large sums of cash and even their family’s homes as security, which they would lose if they were found to violate their contracts.
Once in the United States, prosecutors said, workers were told where they could live and kept away from New York’s Chinese communities where they might speak to others. Their passports were kept in a safe Zhong controlled, and workers who tried to escape were violently recaptured, prosecutors said.
Although the workers came to the United States on visas that allowed them to work only on Chinese diplomatic facilities, they were also forced to work on private properties including Zhong’s own New Jersey home, according to prosecutors.
Cleary told jurors at the beginning of the trial the workers came voluntarily to the United States, where they could make up to five times as much money as they could in China, and that Zhong was never involved in violence.
Zhong was one of several Chinese nationals caught up in interconnected probes by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Others include Macau billionaire developer Ng Lap Seng, who was sentenced to four years in prison last year for bribing United Nations officials.
One of the properties where prosecutors said Rilin employees were forced to work was a $10 million Long Island mansion owned by Qin Fei, an associate of Ng. Investigators once questioned Ng about whether Qin had ties to Chinese intelligence, according to court records.
Prosecutors: China behind forced labor scheme with a Long Island link
The Chinese government was the ultimate enforcer behind a scheme that forced Chinese laborers brought to the U.S. for work at diplomatic facilities to stay for years and toil under harsh conditions on private projects, a prosecutor said in summations Wednesday at a “debt bondage” trial in Brooklyn federal court.
The government contends that Dan Zhong, the nephew of politically connected billionaire Wenliang Wang, used laborers to work on private projects, including a Long Island mansion, for his uncle’s company, using contracts that warned their “political safety” might be at risk if they fled.
“These contracts wielded the Chinese government as a threat against the workers,” prosecutor Ian Richardson told the jury. ” … It is a threat — you must comply or you will be brought to the attention of state security.”
Zhong, 49, of Livingston, New Jersey, ran U.S. Rilin, an affiliate of his uncle’s conglomerate, China Rilin Construction Group. He is charged with using forced labor between 2010 and 2016 to divert laborers, whose visas allowed them to work only at diplomatic facilities, to work on private projects, ranging from a 5th Avenue tower to renovating a $10 million mansion in Old Brookville.
According to testimony at the two-week trial, workers had to post security deposits and deeds to their homes in China under so-called “debt bondage” contracts that also withheld most of their pay until they returned to China. If they fled or sought to defect, their property would be forfeited and their families evicted.
Prosecutors say they were kept on a tight leash at the Chinese consulate or at crowded houses used as dormitories. Three workers who escaped told how they had to turn over their passports, and were hunted down and threatened when they fled, and the wife of a fourth described harsh consequences in China.
In the defense closing, Zhong lawyer Robert Cleary said laborers entered the contracts voluntarily because they earned high pay in the United States, and argued many contract provisions and worker restrictions were demanded by the Chinese government to make sure they didn’t reveal “state secrets” from its facilities.
“The purpose of these restrictions was . . . the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] interest in protecting state secrets, not to force people to work,” Cleary said. “ . . . The security deposit provides the incentive for them not to defect to the U.S.”