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'Debt bondage' trial starts for ex-diplomat tied to Chinese billionaire

An ex-diplomat tied to a Chinese conglomerate forced Chinese laborers brought to the U.S. for work at diplomatic facilities to stay for years under harsh conditions and toil on private projects, including a Long Island mansion, a prosecutor said Tuesday at the start of a “debt bondage” trial in federal court in Brooklyn.

Prosecutor Craig Heeren told jurors that defendant Dan Zhong, the nephew of politically connected Chinese billionaire Wenliang Wang, kept workers under lock and key and used “debt bondage” contracts to hold money and property deeds from them in China, threatening to evict their families if they fled.

“They were made to work seven days a week year after year and they were not paid until they returned to China years later,” said Heeren, accusing Zhong of running “the U.S. arm of a criminal enterprise that exploits forced labor for financial gain.”

Zhong, 49, a green card holder from Livingston, New Jersey, is charged with conspiracy, visa fraud, alien smuggling, using forced labor and document servitude as part of a scheme to exploit workers from 2010 to 2016. He was the head of U.S. Rilin, an affiliate of his uncle’s China Rilin Construction Group.

Wang, whose sprawling business interests run from soybeans to ports and real estate, is best known in the U.S. as a major donor to universities, including New York University, and politicians. He gave generously to the Clinton Foundation and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, according to news reports.

Wang has not been charged. But Heeren, in his opening argument, told jurors that Zhong and his family — including his uncle — “controlled” the enterprise, and said that once, after a worker fled and was recaptured, his uncle said “to have the man’s legs broken if he runs away again.”

Robert Cleary, a defense lawyer for Zhong, who has been detained since 2016, said all the workers voluntarily posted money and entered into their contracts with Rilin because they wanted high-paying U.S. jobs. He said a fugitive co-defendant of Zhong — Landong Wang — was responsible for any abuses.

“There was no force or duress,” Cleary said. “What there was was a choice.”

According to prosecutors, the workers entered the U.S. under special visas allowing them to work only at sensitive Chinese facilities — such as the U.N. mission and consulates — but then worked on private profit-making projects, such as a 5th Ave. building and a $10 million Old Brookville home that has figured in other recent cases.

Chinese tycoon Ng Lap Seng, convicted of bribing United Nations officials, was seen visiting there on the eve of his 2015 arrest, and agents questioned him about intelligence ties of the owner, a man named Qin Fei. A former China Air agent from Queens is currently charged in an obstruction of justice case with tipping Fei off to an investigation and helping him leave the U.S.

In their opening statements, the two sides painted contrasting pictures of the Rilin workers’ conditions in the U.S. Cleary said two decades ago there had been abuses, but after 2010 workers were allowed to take sightseeing trips to cities like Boston and Los Angeles and enjoyed recreation, from barbecues to fishing and gambling trips.

But Heeren said workers’ passports were seized, and when they weren’t working they were kept away from Chinese communities where they could communicate, tracked down and assaulted if they fled, and housed in unsafe group “dormitories."

The second prosecution witness on Tuesday, former Jersey City fire official Matthew Barrett, described a raid on one of the homes in 2011 — a single family home fitted with mattresses and bunk beds to sleep 16.

Barrett said it had dangerous improvised wiring, bars on the windows, and steel doors with “double key” deadbolt locks that required a key to get out as well as to get in.

“If there were people inside the house and they needed to get out they wouldn’t be able to,” he testified.

Testimony in the case resumes on Wednesday.

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