Monday, March 1, 2010

The Snake Head by Patrick Keefe

On May 16, 2005, Sister Ping was escorted into a courtroom in the federal courthouse on Pearl Street in downtown New York City. It had been over a decade since she fled from the neighborhood to take refuge in China, and she was visibly older; her face was still unlined, but her hair, which had grown long, was streaked with gray. She wore a smart black pantsuit, the professional garb of an inoffensive businesswoman. It was a canny choice of uniform: a businesswoman, Sister Ping would maintain throughout the trial, was all she had ever been. The courtroom was filled with press, and with dozens of supporters and relatives from Chinatown....

"This is a case about the brutal business of smuggling human beings into the United States for profit, and about one woman, the defendant, Cheng Chui Ping, who rose to become one of the most powerful and most successful alien smugglers in our time," one of the prosecutors declared... To make its case, the government produced a devastatingly comprehensive array of former criminal associates...But the most damning witness was the man who had been living in a temporary jail cell since 1994, the man whose decidedly complicated history with Sister Ping was about to undergo one final twist.

Sister Ping sat quietly through the testimony, listening through headphones to a simultaneous translation and occasionally taking notes. Her attorney hammered at the credibility of the government's witness... In his closing arguments, Hochheiser invoked the Arthur Miller play The Crucible, about the witch trials in Salem. Most of his indignation was directed at Ah Kay:

"He ordered the murders. One beating we heard about, ten ordered beatings, ten to twenty robberies, forty to fifty extortions, two arsons, at least a thousand alien smugglings, one racketeering, one gun possession, one parole violation, tax evasion, and fake passports." Hochheiser was a veteran defense attorney- a seasoned litigator who had spent years representing the Westies, a violent Irish American gang based in Hell's Kitchen- but even he seemed sincerely impressed by the length of Ak Kay's rap sheet. "That's one of your main witnesses!", he exclaimed.....

On June 22, after five days of deliberation, the jury members sent a note to Judge Mukasey saying that they had "come to an impasse" on count two, the hostage-taking charge. Hochheiser promptly requested a mistrial on that count. He feared that when the jury left the courthouse each day, they were being exposed to a barrage of negative publicity. It was true that the local newspapers in New York were painting an unflattering portrait of sister Ping and suggesting that she had somehow been the ringleader behind the infamous grounding of the Golden Venture on Rockaway Peninsula in 1993.* It could not have helped that during the trial, in an unrelated incident, a restaurant worker from New Jersey had been gunned down at Sister Ping's restaurant on East Broadway. The headline in the Daily News that day was "Evil Incarnate".

But if Sister Ping was demonized in the mainstream New York Press, she was lionized in Chinatown. Copies of the city's Chinese-language dailies sold out at newstands throughout the trial. There was a great upswell of sympathy in the neighborhood, where Sister Ping was widely regarded as someone who had provided a service, lifting a generation of people out of dead-end lives of rural poverty. The World Journal reported that in Sister Ping's home village of Shengmei, people were volunteering to do jail time on her behalf. They described her as a "living Buddha". Ninety percent of the villagers now lived overseas and had managed to leave China through the good offices of Sister Ping. The remaining residents- well maintained by the remittances of the emigrants- prepared a petition to send to Judge Mukasey, requesting leniency.

To be sure, there was a diversity of opinion among Fulianese in both China and the United States on the subject of the famous snakehead, but the prevailing attitude in Chinatown was that while she may have broken the laws, her crimes were essentially victimless, and were ultimately justified in terms of the prosperity they created for her customers. What you thought about Sister Ping depended at least in part on the value you attached to a single human life and how that value factored into a larger calculation of possible benefits and possible risks. "In China, a human life isn't worth ten pennies," Justin Yu explained in his book, "Ten thousand people come to America and one hundred people die? Bad luck. If they make it, their families get rich. Their villages get rich."

So for American-born prosecutors and members of the press to focus on the ten dead from the Golden Venture, or on the hazards and depredations of the journey, was to miss the point, and to indulge in a conception of the preciousness of human life and the primacy of physical comforts that would be foreign to the Fulianese because it wold render almost any risk untenable. Sister Ping's business was inherently risky, and her clients understood those risks and accepted them. The key to understanding the snakehead trade was the concept of "acceptable risk, Yu concluded. " Acceptable cruelty, acceptable lousy treatment, acceptable long trip, there's no toilet. It's acceptable. Because of the comparison: the life there and the life here".

[In the wake of the Golden Venture incident in 1993 and the negative publicity it generated for Bejing, the Futianese authorities launched a far-reaching anti-snakehead campaign, vowing to hunt down and prosecute the smugglers and discourage local people from leaving illegally. In Sister Ping's village officials erected a sign that said, "It seriously damages the reputation of our party and our country, undermines border security, destroys public stability, and ruins the general social atmosphere." But in reality the campaign and its placards amounted to so much lip service. For the Fulianese who could now afford refrigerators and televisions, who could purchase cars and throw decadent wedding banquets or build new homes, no amount of propaganda or persuasion could diminish the widely held conviction that the snakehead trade was a fundamental social good- that had enabled hundreds of thousands of people to pull themselves out of poverty and indulge in material comforts that would have been unimaginable to the generation before them.]

After several days of further deliberation, in 2005, the jury returned a verdict, guilty of conspiracy, trafficking in ransom proceeds, and one count of money laundering.... The press took little notice of it , but the jury acquitted Sister Ping on count four, the only charge that linked her to the Golden Venture. But it made little difference. Her name and face would always be synonymous with that voyage.



  1. There is the famous story about Deng Xiaping's visit to Washington in 1979, when Jimmie Carter scolded him about China's restrictions on the "freedom of departure"- the right to emigration- and suggested that more people should be permitted to leave China. According to the story, Deng fixed Carter with his slightly beady gaze and said, "Why certainly, President Carter. How many millions would you like?"

  2. Until the early 20th century, there was generally some correlation between the home port or ownership of an oceangoing vessel and the nationality of the flag that it flew. But during Prohibition the American owners of two cruise ships, frustrated because they could not serve alcohol on board, were permitted to re-register their ships in Panama, despite the fact that neither the companies nor their ships, nor the routes that those ships took, had any special relationship with the Central American country. This ushered in a new phenomena that would become known as "flags of convenience"; an unprecedented opportunity that allowed shipowners to shop around for the most obliging venue to register their vessels, a way to avoid registering in countries like the United States which have high taxes, rigorous vessel inspections, and other cumbersome regulations. For the countries that opened their registries, the practice was lucrative. By 1993 the government of Panama alone was collecting some $50 million a year in ship registration and fees, and the maritime lawyers, shipping agents and inspectors in Panama city were making the same amount again.

    If this system worked for the large, licit world of shippers in the global economy, it also held special appeal for outlaws, pirates, smugglers and thieves. With flags of convenience it became more difficult to trace a vessel's provenance. Because it was easy to flag and re-flag ships in jurisdictions that did not insist on rigorous inspections, it became possible to continue sailing a ship long after it was no longer seaworthy....Smugglers could move a variety of goods- timber, plywood, frozen prawns, palm oil, illegal immigrants- by the shipload without paying taxes. Gunrunners could flout arms embargoes and send weapons into conflict zones. Pirates could hijack tankers, rerouting a vessel and re-flaggng it in some lax jurisdiction- possible through an online registry in twenty four hours- repainting its name at sea, and effectively enabling it to drop off the nautical map and disappear, becoming what is known as a phantom ship.

    As the "Tong Sern" sailed through the South China sea, the crew lowered the flag of Panama and raised the blue-and-white striped flag of Honduras. Two crewman were slung over the side by ropes and began repainting the name on the stern of the ship. They replaced the words "Tong Serb" with a new set of white letters: "Golden Venture".

  3. Throughout the 1990s, asylum caseloads were exploding, and immigration judges were often under-resourced and overworked. As a result, this most solomonic determination- who should be saved and who should be sent back- became an arbitrary and capricious activity. Disparities began to emerge in the ways that similar asylum cases were treated in different places. If you are a Chinese asylum seeker applying in San Francisco today, for instance, you have a 74 percent chance of success, as opposed to 18 percent if you apply in Newark. When your case is assigned to an immigration judge, the assignment is random- there is no way to select which judge will hear your claim. But enormous differences exist in the grant rates of individual judges. One judge in Los Angeles grants asylum to roughly 81 percent of all Chinese applicants, while a colleague in the same court grants asylum to only 9 percent. If your case is randomly assigned to a female judge, you automatically have a 44 percent better chance of getting approved. Whether an asylum applicant is able to live safely in the United States or is deported to a country in which he claims to fear persecution is very seriously influenced by a spin of the wheel, one study concludes, "by a clerk's random assignment of an applicants case to one asylum officer rather than another, one immigration judge rather than another.

    Pending the outcome of their claims asylum seekers in the U.S. are now housed in a network of detention facilities, some of which are owned by private prison companies, and in hundreds of local and county jails. These sites are overcrowded and under-regulated. It is possible for immigrants who have committed no crime apart from the civil infraction of being in this country without the proper documents simply to disappear in this system. Health care is substandard. According to a study by the 'Washington Post', in a recent five year period, eighty-three detainees died in immigration custody. The actions or inactions of medical staff were responsible in a significant number of those cases. But the leading cause of death among those held in immigration detention is suicide.

    It is an ironic reflection on American attitudes towards immigration that this penal system costs taxpayers an estimated $1.2 billion a year to maintain. That sum is so colossal that if even a fraction of it were redirected to hiring and training asylum officers, immigration judges, and other administrative staff to help process the backlog of immigration cases, and to do so in such a way that people's claims are actually accorded the serious consideration they deserve, it could cut down on the duration of these indefinite prison sentences and the need to jail immigrants in the first place.

  4. "The Snake Head; An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and The American Dream" by Patrick Radden Keefe; Doubleday, 2009