SHENGMEI, China—It’s a drizzly Wednesday morning, and I’m walking through Shengmei, a tiny village of cramped homes and concrete lanes, trying to learn about the town’s most famous daughter, notorious snakehead Cheng Chui Ping, who is better known as Sister Ping. The great migration of Fujianese to the United States has largely been facilitated by human smugglers, whom the Chinese call “snakeheads.” Snakeheads are basically underworld travel agents. If you’re a poor Fujianese and you want to go to America, a snakehead is the person you see. No visa? No passport? No problem. Until she was arrested in Hong Kong in 2000, Sister Ping was one of the most prolific Chinese snakeheads—and certainly the most famous. (I wrote a long article about her for The New Yorker in 2006.) Authorities knew her as the “mother of all snakeheads” and estimated that she made about $40 million over two decades. When Sister Ping was a young girl, in 1964, her father left the family, joining a merchant vessel as a crewman and jumping ship in America. He stayed, illegally, for the next 13 years, sending money home to support his wife and children.
Sister Ping was nearly 30 when her father returned to Shengmei and began arranging to send other undocumented Fujianese to America. He enlisted his children to help: One daughter obtained passports and visas so that customers could travel overland to Hong Kong, then fly to Guatemala or Belize. A son oversaw the Central American leg of the trip, arranging passage across the Mexican border. Sister Ping moved to New York’s Chinatown in 1982 and personally ferried passengers from Mexico to the United States.
The operation ended up being so successful that Shengmei is the most completely deserted village I have visited anywhere around Fuzhou. The houses are almost all shuttered. The liveliest spot in town is an old-folks’ home, where a half-dozen residents (all with children in America) watch television.
A young woman walking a bicycle points out Sister Ping’s house: a four-story structure just off the main square with a curved gate and a pagoda on the roof. No one is home. Sister Ping arranged for her extended and immediate family, and most of her neighbors, to come to America years ago.
“She made people want to go to America, because people trusted her,” a retiree from a neighboring village, whose nephew now lives in Iowa and got there with the help of Sister Ping, tells me. She was very detail-oriented, the man explains, and was perceived as a professional in a field of amateurs: You had fewer reservations about putting your life in her hands. “Yes, you were paying her a lot of money,” he says. (Sister Ping charged $18,000 for the trip from Fujian to New York in the 1980s. In the 1990s, it went up to $35,000.) “But she was giving you a better life.”
Everyone I meet in Fujian insists that while Sister Ping may have been an outlaw, she was an outlaw in the Robin Hood tradition: She performed a vital service, lifting her fellow villagers out of poverty by enabling them to emigrate to America. Customers would make a small down payment before leaving China. Then, assuming they made it to America in one piece, they would cobble together enough cash to pay Sister Ping the balance of the fee. They did this by borrowing small amounts from friends and family—debts that then took a few years of work to repay.
For many Fujianese, the upward mobility the snakeheads facilitated could rationalize a multitude of sins. No matter that the occasional smuggling ship would capsize with the loss of all aboard or that Sister Ping and other snakeheads employed violent gangsters to hold customers until they had paid the balance of their fees. The relationship between snakehead and client is perceived as strictly contractual and not the least bit exploitative. Illegal immigration is a hazardous business, and migrants know the risks going in.
(This is the difference, in a nutshell, between human smuggling and human trafficking, two discrete criminal enterprises that journalists and human rights advocates tend to describe interchangeably. No one was telling migrants from Fuzhou that they would be working as models or waitresses upon their arrival, and incidents of snakeheads forcing migrants into sex slavery, while not unheard of, are exceedingly rare.)
Even Chinese law enforcement has tended to tolerate the snakehead trade. I meet with a Fujianese cop who works the snakehead beat, and he tells me that in recent years he and his colleagues have made some arrests, but this type of crime has never been a huge priority. The cop doesn’t want me to use his name, but over one thimble-sized cup of tea after another, he talks frankly about the problem.
“The law was always the same,” he explains. “It’s a matter of enforcement.” Throughout the 1990s, when the business was booming, Fujianese police turned a blind eye to the snakeheads. Bribery is endemic in Chinese political and law-enforcement circles, and the snakeheads were able to buy a fair amount of protection. But they enjoyed good will as well: The more Fujianese they smuggled out, the more money flowed back into the province in the form of remittances from America.
Today, the industry has changed. The snakeheads are much less active than they used to be. The economy is strong, and fewer people want to leave. And to some extent, the market is exhausted: In villages like Shengmei, everyone who might ever want to go to America is already there or has relatives with green cards who can sponsor them to make the journey legally. The cost of the journey has also grown prohibitively high: Snakeheads now charge $70,000 for the trip from Fuzhou to New York. And the whole fee is payable upfront.
When Sister Ping was arrested by the Hong Kong police and extradited to the United States, it marked the end of an era. She was convicted in federal court in 2006 and sentenced to 35 years in prison. In New York’s Chinatown, the sentence was regarded as excessive, as if U.S. authorities were trying to make an example of Sister Ping and send a message to their Chinese counterparts that the snakehead racket can’t be tolerated.
She may have been paying, in part, for the impunity she had enjoyed in China. From 1994, when Sister Ping fled the United States, to her arrest in 2000, she lived in the house in Shengmei. Right under the nose of Chinese authorities, at a time when she was the FBI’s most wanted Asian organized crime figure, she carried on smuggling for six profitable years.
“Everyone knew” she was there, the cop tells me. “But no one came out and pointed a finger at her.” Her customers were satisfied, he explains. She was regarded as a local hero. No one came forward with any complaint about her, and the police seemed unwilling to go knocking on doors. “This is a different era from Mao Zedong’s time,” the cop says. “If you’re going to lock someone up, you need evidence.”
As he’s talking about Sister Ping, there’s something in his voice that sounds almost like nostalgia. Sister Ping was known for her sophisticated operation and for her great wealth, he explains. She was widely respected. “Now, if you’re a snakehead, no one gives you respect anymore.” In the current economy, anyone with a head for business can get rich. Today, the really smart entrepreneurs don’t become snakeheads. They build factories.
It’s a “lower caliber of person,” in the smuggling business today, the cop concludes. “It’s not people you want to be hanging out with.”