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Former Chinese diplomat convicted in 'debt bondage' trial

Dan Zhong is charged with taking part in

Dan Zhong is charged with taking part in a forced-labor scheme that federal prosecutors say was overseen by the Chinese government. Credit: USANYE/HButler

A federal jury in Brooklyn on Friday took barely four hours to convict a well-connected former Chinese diplomat of a forced labor scheme, using “debt bondage” to make laborers brought to the United States to work at diplomatic facilities toil, instead, at private projects including at a Long Island mansion.

Dan Zhong, 49, of Livingston, New Jersey, was convicted of conspiracy, alien smuggling, using forced labor, document servitude, and visa fraud for carrying out the scheme through a company affiliated with China Rilin Construction Group, a conglomerate controlled by his uncle, Chinese billionaire Wenliang Wang.

The verdict followed a two-week trial. Prosecutors said workers recruited by Rilin to do construction work at Chinese facilities in the United States were forced to hand over deeds to their homes and cash security to ensure their return and compliance with orders, and warned that the families of those who escaped would be evicted and their “political safety” would be at risk.

According to testimony at trial, passports were seized and wages were withheld for workers in the United States to keep them on a leash as they were forced to work long hours in violation of their visas at private projects ranging from a Fifth Avenue tower to a $10 million mansion called "The Big House" in Old Brookville that was owned by a Chinese man.

U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly ordered jurors to return to court on Monday to hear arguments and deliberate on how much money Zhong should forfeit. Robert Cleary, a lawyer for Zhong, who has been detained since his 2016 arrest, declined to comment after the verdict.

Witnesses at trial included two informants the FBI had inside Zhong’s operation and three victims who fled. They said Zhong’s billionaire uncle, who was not charged, was referred to as “boss” and led the company, and that crews were sent out to hunt, beat up and return workers who tried to escape.

After one worker fled and was recaptured, Wenliang Wang ordered that his legs should be broken if he tried it again, said prosecutors, who told jurors that the threat of Chinese government reprisal was also used to keep workers in line.

Defense lawyers said workers entered into the contracts voluntarily to make higher salaries in the United States and that many of the restrictions were demanded by the Chinese government to ensure that workers didn’t use their access to government facilities to steal secrets and defect.

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