[Stop-traffic] News/China: 'Snakeheads' at Your Service

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/China: 'Snakeheads' at Your Service
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Thu Dec 31 1903 - 23:05:03 EST

'Snakeheads' at Your Service

By Ted Plafker and John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday , June 24, 2000 ; A17

CHANGLE, China -- "Snakehead," the pejorative term for alien smugglers, is
not a dirty
word in this township, a swath of southern Chinese countryside near the
choppy gray waters
of the Taiwan Strait. And according to the FBI, Cheng Chui Ping, also known
as Big Sister
Ping, was the mother of all snakeheads.

Cheng, a matronly, fiftyish woman with a souvenir shop in New York's
Chinatown, is believed
to have smuggled thousands of Chinese over the last 16 years to North
America and
elsewhere from this semirural suburb on the outskirts of Fuzhou, the
bustling capital of Fujian

Once, law enforcement agents said, she was involved in a case in which four
attempted to sneak into the United States by going over Niagara Falls in a
$59 raft. They
died. She is also linked to a 1993 tragedy in which 10 Chinese illegal
aliens died on a boat
called the Golden Venture off the coast of New York.

[In a current case that is surmised to involve snakeheads, three people were
charged Friday in
connection with the horrific deaths of 58 Chinese illegal immigrants who
suffocated in the back
of a truck while trying to sneak into Britain this week from the
Netherlands. Police said the
Dutch driver of the truck, Perry Wacker, 32, was charged with 58 counts of
while a Chinese man, You Yi, 38, and a Chinese woman, Ying Guo, 29, were
charged with
conspiracy to facilitate illegal entry into the United Kingdom.]

Now Cheng is in a Hong Kong jail cell awaiting extradition to the United
States, where she
faces a seven-count federal indictment charging her with money laundering,
alien smuggling,
extortion and other crimes.

But here in Changle, Cheng is viewed as a simple service provider in the
economy of alien
smuggling. And that attitude helps explain the tragedy in Britain.

While people here mourned the grisly loss of life there, they also seemed to
take the deaths as
part of the risks of their particular way of life--where going overseas in a
box or a boat has
almost become part of their cultural makeup.

The only connection between Cheng and the British victims is that they all
hail from Changle, a
collection of quiet villages, populated mostly by goats and the elderly
because the young are
abroad. But her case--and how people reacted to it here--illustrates the
severity of the
problem in China and other countries around the world targeted by

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 30,000
Chinese illegal aliens,
mostly from around Fuzhou, sneak into the United States each year. They
come, carrying
bogus documents, on boats, by road via Mexico or on planes. More than
100,000 Chinese
leave for other countries each year, experts say.

Snakeheads feed off these immigrants. A few years ago, it cost $30,000 for
passage to the
United States. Now the price has doubled. A U.S. Senate report in 1991
estimated Cheng's
net worth at more than $30 million. In addition to her Chinatown shop,
authorities said, she
owns farms on Long Island and in New Jersey. Altogether, she has sneaked
3,000 people out
of China, authorities said.

Cheng is charged in the U.S. indictment with threatening and injuring
immigrants who failed to
pay. But in Changle, these alleged crimes do not seem to resonate.

"I don't really support violence, but if people do not pay the money they
agreed to pay, then of
course the snakeheads will have to take certain measures," said Zhao
Chunying, a Changle

Zhao said she plans to join her brother and uncle in the United States "in
the next several
years" and would be prepared to use a snakehead if she had no other choice.
She also said
she is confident that she would pay her fees on time.

The common line about the immigrants is that they have been forced to leave
China because of
grinding poverty. Lin Jianzhi, a 37-year-old housing contractor in Changle,
thinks that is

"In fact, the reason people want to leave here is because the economy here
is the best in
China," he said. "The pay is even higher here than in Beijing so . . . where
can we go if we
want a higher standard? Abroad is the only place."

Then there is keeping up with the Joneses, Chinese style. Changle, Tingjiang
and Lianjiang, the
three main centers of the alien smuggling racket around Fuzhou, are all
dotted with garish
mansions--five or six stories tall, surfaced in shiny white tile and
accented with bizarre
combinations of stainless steel pillars, marble staircases and English

Standing on a village road, Lin points out two houses in the distance. They
belong to two
brothers, he said, snakeheads who ran five big boatloads to North America in
1993. They
each cost $250,000 to build--a fortune here. Each comes equipped with
Jacuzzi, sauna and
exercise room, all surrounded by a high fence.

With role models like these, Lin says, the pull of illegal immigration is
even stronger.

The beneficiaries of alien smuggling are also legion in this region,
starting with Lin. For the past
18 years, he has constructed seven or eight houses a year for people living
abroad. The basic
cost is $100,000, top of the line $250,000.

The government also does well. The alien smuggling business is worth an
estimated $3 billion a
year. Some of that money makes its way back to the government in bribes.

Peter Kwong, an expert on alien smuggling at Hunter College in New York,
estimates further
that each year these immigrants remit $500 million to Fujian, with the
government and banks
all getting a cut.

"The local government in Fujian is involved in this whole process," he said.
"They gain from the
profits, from the remittances. The smugglers are the most potent economic
forces in this area. .
. . Also the government has another motivation--the more people leave China,
the fewer
problems--so the commitment to solve this problem is not there."

But this time Beijing appears set on showing that it is cracking down. It
has flooded Changle
with police and hauled dozens of people away for questioning.

So far this year, Chinese police have arrested 300 suspected snakeheads, and
100 have been
sentenced to jail. However, this does not seem to be having much effect.
Authorities in British
Columbia, for example, say they expect 1,200 Chinese illegal immigrants to
wash ashore this
year, double the number last year.

Pomfret reported from Beijing.
Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

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