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.”
But Richardson said the laborers caught up in the arrangement didn’t have any actual access to secrets and, even if the Chinese government was behind parts of the arrangement, it wouldn’t matter.
“That is not a justification for violating U.S. law,” he said. “That is not a free pass to hold people in servitude against their will.”
Zhong is charged with conspiracy, alien smuggling, visa fraud, document servitude, and using forced labor. The jury is expected to begin its deliberations on Thursday.