China officialdom-underworld ties seen in Oklahoma – Asia Times

China officialdom-underworld ties seen in Oklahoma - Asia Times

In a partnership with The Frontier, ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning analytical newspaper, published this account for the first time.

The photos look like a regular meeting between a top Chinese minister and immigrants in the British heartland: conscientious smiles, everyday clothes, a pot on a table, Chinese and US flags on the wall.

However, there is a possible troubling history hidden behind the pictures. During two journeys to Oklahoma, Consul General Zhu Di of the Chinese ambassador visited a social connection that has been a goal of investigations into Chinese mafias that dominate the state’s billion-dollar pot business. And the group officials posing with him in the pictures? According to court documents, open documents, pictures, and social media posts, some of them have pleaded innocent or been charged or under investigation for drug-related crimes.

“ He’s meeting with known criminals, ” Donnie Anderson, the director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, said in an interview.

The president public, who is one of China’s top diplomats in the United States, has not shown any wrongdoing. Still, the fights in Oklahoma reflect a pattern of links around the world between China ’s authoritarian government and community officials linked to criminal activity — a subject of increasing problem among Western national safety authorities, human rights groups and Chinese dissidents.

US and foreign national security officials have alleged that the Chinese state maintains a tacit alliance with Chinese organized crime in the US and across the world. According to Western officials, court cases, and human rights organizations, mobsters ostensibly support pro-Beijing causes and covertly provide services abroad: engaging in political influence work, moving illicit funds offshore for the Chinese elite, and helping to persecute dissidents. Chinese officials reciprocate by tolerating and sometimes supporting their illicit activities, according to those sources.

Additionally, according to Western officials, this alleged state-mafia partnership has used powerful Chinese cultural organizations to project power abroad. As ProPublica has reported, the leaders of diaspora associations who interact with Chinese and local governments in Europe and elsewhere include accused organized crime figures.

In the United States, Chinese criminal networks have expanded their wealth and influence by taking over much of the nation’s illicit marijuana trade, ProPublica reported last week.

The consul general traveled to Oklahoma in that context.

In November 2022, a Chinese gunman killed four fellow immigrants and wounded another at an illegal marijuana farm in Oklahoma. According to Chinese officials, a participant in a meeting, and photos and reports from the media, the consul general hurried to Oklahoma City to talk about the murders with members of the community and offer assistance to the victims ‘ families. Zhu returned for another visit in June, photos and media reports show.

During both trips, meetings took place at the local branch of the American Fujian Association on Classen Boulevard, which in 2020 was the scene of a violent clash that left a convicted criminal with a gunshot wound and two others facing trial. One of the accused assailants died and the other was hurt in the quadruple murder at their marijuana farm two years after that shooting.

Law enforcement agencies have also investigated the association ’s headquarters, a ground-floor suite in a minimall, as a suspected illegal casino and a hub of other illicit activity, according to court records and senior officials.

Consul General Zhu Di, who made his first appearance to the Fujianese association in November 2022, is in front of him in the center. Three of the people he met, whose photos are circled, oversaw a nearby nightclub that police raided during  investigations into drugs and human trafficking, according to public records, social media posts and officials. Junli Zhang has not been charged, despite Ke Xiang Chen being accused of drug-related crimes and Ling Chen entering a guilty plea. Photo: The Frontier / SinoVision

The diplomat met with some of the same people during a second visit in June 2023, as well as Chuan Min Zhang ( circled ), who had admitted guilt to drug-related offenses.

Photo: Li Zhaoyin via SinoVision

Although the consul general did not respond to questions addressed to him for this article, officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, said he simply did his duty by going to Oklahoma in response to the deaths of Chinese nationals. A consular official said in an interview that the embassy was unaware of the crimes connected to the association and those who met with Zhu, but he would not discuss the visits.

In a written statement sent by email, the embassy’s spokesperson, Liu Pengyu, said Chinese officials travel to different states “to understand the living conditions and development of overseas Chinese in the United States, help them better observe the laws and regulations of their country of residence, and encourage them to actively serve and integrate into local communities so as to play a positive role in promoting friendship between the peoples of China and the US. ”

But US law enforcement experts see a troubling global pattern in ongoing relationships between Chinese government officials and community leaders with criminal ties. Because Chinese officials closely monitor the diaspora, it ’s very likely they know about such ties, the experts said.

These diaspora organizations are the Chinese state’s tools, according to Donald Im, a former senior official at the Drug Enforcement Administration. “The presence of criminal elements in the leadership suggests an alliance, directly or indirectly, between the Chinese state and organized crime. ”

Freedom House, a human rights organization, summed up China ’s global reach in a report in 2021, describing a “framework of influence that encompasses cultural associations, diaspora groups, and in some cases, organized crime networks. ”

Current and former law enforcement officials claim that the 14K triad’s activities highlight another suspected connection to the Chinese state. One of the Chinese criminal organizations that is the dominant form of money laundering for the Latin American drug lords and the Chinese Communist Party elite.

The 14K has expanded its portfolio to play a command role over marijuana trafficking networks in Oklahoma and other states, according to Anderson, Im and other current and former officials. A Macao boss of the 14K has been accused by the Treasury Department of leading the Chinese Communist Party’s political consultation and supporting China’s expansion through business partnerships and Chinese cultural organizations in Asia and the Pacific.

And US federal agents are investigating cases in which Chinese provincial officials allegedly work with criminal groups to get drug money that they then use to finance infrastructure projects in China or abroad in the Belt and Road Initiative, the international public works program that has expanded China ’s global might, according to current and former US officials.

“All these provinces are competing with each other and using criminal networks and triads to find revenue for government projects, ” Im said. Regional governors and provinces in China are benefited by the marijuana industry in the US. Drug money is like an ad hoc bank for Chinese economic projects and policies. ”

Oklahoma authorities admit that it is hard for them to get a grip on the influx of criminal groups, let alone trace a trail back to the Chinese state. Monitoring the activities of foreign diplomats, officials and spies is the jurisdiction of federal agencies working in the secretive realm of counterintelligence.

However, according to Anderson and other officials, state and federal agents have used surveillance, open sources, and photos and communications found in electronic devices to identify interactions between their suspects and Chinese government officials. And the brazen movement of large amounts of money between China and the players in the illicit marijuana trade shows that Chinese officials are either aware or involved, the officials said.

According to Anderson, our investigations reveal that there are Chinese officials working for, profiting, and working in the Oklahoman marijuana industry. “Money is invested here and it ’s from China, to set up organizations. These are transnational organizations. Additionally, money is returning to China. ”

Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said during a committee hearing last year that the Chinese government seems “fully aware ” of marijuana-related organized crime activity in the United States, but it is “looking away … to increase a negative influence on Americans. ”

Such accusations were described as “groundless, ” “irresponsible speculation, ” and “slander, ” according to the Chinese embassy spokesperson. ”

We urge the relevant parties to respect the facts, stop fabricating lies, stop discrediting and slandering Chinese officials, and stop spreading anti-China propaganda, ” Liu said.

Checkered pasts

Many owners and workers at Oklahoma marijuana farms are Fujianese immigrants who arrived in recent years from other US states, particularly New York, according to law enforcement officials and Chinese American leaders.

Some are upholding the law. Others are gunslinging gangsters. And yet others continue to operate in a shadowy environment as a result of the country’s decriminalization trend, which has reduced the risks and rewards of selling illegal marijuana.

ProPublica and The Frontier have identified over a dozen national leaders of Fujianese associations from the East Coast involved in Oklahoma’s marijuana boom. A number of these leaders, who include US citizens and legal permanent residents, have suspected or confirmed links to illegal activity. According to photos, media reports, and interviews, they speak with Chinese diplomats, Communist Party leaders, and even Chinese security officials. Some also mix with US politicians.

According to court records, Yunda Chen, an accused drug trafficker by the name of” Big Boss Yunda,” frequently traveled between his Atlanta home and his marijuana farms in Oklahoma.

Using vehicle surveillance and a drone, state anti-drug agents followed couriers working for Chen as they transported bales of marijuana and cash shipments, some in Oklahoma and others that were destined for New York, Tennessee and other states in the national black market, court records say.

The agents recruited an undercover informant — a local resident whom Chen paid$ 2,500 and a pound of dope a month to appear on registration documents and medical marijuana licenses as majority owner of his farms, court records say.

According to court documents, FBI translators assisted in translating intercepted phone calls where Chen discussed a debt-related dispute between more than 20 combatants and discussed how to negotiate deals. Chen also spoke with suspects connected to alleged trafficking and money laundering in other states.

Authorities arrested Chen in Florida in December 2022 and charged him and five others in a trafficking conspiracy. According to court documents, agents seize nearly 50,000 marijuana plants and several firearms from five Oklahoma farms. They also found workers living in “poor and unsafe” conditions, said Mark Woodward, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

Last June, prosecutors hit Chen with an additional charge of witness intimidation after he sent a text message warning an accused accomplice “not to talk about the things that don’t concern you ” in upcoming testimony, court records say. ( Chen is awaiting trial and has not yet entered pleas because defense attorneys requested arraignment delays. ) He and his lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) )

The aid of the FBI and the rare use of wiretaps in a state case reflect its significance. As far as investigators were concerned, Chen was a major trafficker.

He is the most active player we have ever had, ” Woodward said. “ He was running a more organized system than many we have dealt with — large scale, more hierarchy. ”

In the simultaneously tightknit and far-flung subculture of Fujianese immigrants, though, Chen is a well-connected leader.

He lives in a large house on several acres bordering a country club in suburban Atlanta and owns a chain of restaurants and a catering business, public records show. He consented to pay back$ 225,000 in back wages in 2012 as part of a Labor Department lawsuit that a federal investigator described as “deplorable” because of his willingness to pay the terms of a federal investigation. ” Chen denied wrongdoing and disputed some of the findings in the settlement. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) )

While serving as executive vice chair of the American Lianjiang Association, which represents people from a coastal district of Fujian, Chen has joined Chinese diplomats and Communist Party officials at US events, according to media reports and photos posted on social media.

Among those events: In 2017, photos and media reports show he spoke at a reception in Atlanta that was attended by a Chinese consul general who was based in Houston. In 2019, he took part with prominent Chinese Communist Party members in a gala and symposium convened by his organization in New York to “conscientiously study ” President Xi Jinping’s campaign for the “reunification ” of China and Taiwan, a constant source of conflict in military relations with the United States.

Chen is also active in US politics. According to public records, photos, and social media posts, he donated$ 6,600 to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s inauguration ceremony in Atlanta in 2019. He has contributed thousands to other local politicians and socialized with them, according to public records and media reports. He received an award from a minority business association in 2019. ( A Kemp campaign spokesperson declined to comment. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) )

According to a Chinese media report, Yunda Chen remained a Lianjiang association’s “specially appointed policy consultant ” as of last year.

Like the Big Boss in Georgia, Virginia-based businessman Bi Chao Chen ( no relation to Yunda ) has interacted with Chinese diplomats, Fujian provincial officials and even representatives of the Ministry of Public Security— the law enforcement juggernaut that oversees China ’s police forces — media reports and photos show.

In 2018, he was among leaders who met with a Ministry of Public Security delegation that visited New York, according to a news report that gave few details about the meeting. Additionally, he is seen in photos and media reports attending a dinner with the leaders of a powerful organization that is a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front, which is the party’s influential and intelligence wing.

US prosecutors alleged last year that officials of the United Front worked with the public security ministry to set up an illegal Chinese police station in a Fujianese association in New York to monitor and intimidate U. S. dissidents, according to a federal criminal complaint and statements by federal officials. It was one of dozens of such stations directed by Chinese security forces and operating in diaspora associations around the world. The Chinese government has disputed any illegal activity by the overseas police stations, and the two Chinese-American defendants in the New York case have entered a not-guilty plea.

Bi Chao Chen, who appears in a photo with a defendant in the federal case, has had his own run-ins with the law.

According to court records, he was found guilty of assault and battery in Hampton, Virginia, in 2015 after menaced a man with a knife, forced him to the ground, and stole$ 5,000 from him. He also has multiple convictions in connection to a wildlife poaching operation he led and an additional arrest for assault and battery in which he was not charged, court records show.

In Oklahoma, he has had ties to at least two marijuana ventures, public records show. His name appears on a state marijuana license, limited liability company documents, and the front door of a sizable area of greenhouses and indoor cultivation facilities west of Tulsa, according to court records. The registered agent was a lawyer who is currently facing legal action for allegedly arranging fraudulent ownership schemes. Another person who has a marijuana license registered at the same location was involved in a violent dispute in 2021 that ended in an assailant shooting at her with a pistol, court documents say.

In an investigation into money laundering and marijuana trafficking in Oklahoma and Colorado that resulted in three guilty pleas, according to court records, which also reveal that another defendant is awaiting trial, DEA agents searched the second location in 2022, which is located on the grounds of a former horse racing track. Chen has had a limited liability corporation registered at the address of the farm.

Authorities have not charged Bi Chao Chen in those cases. Email and phone requests for comment from him and a lawyer were not answered.

Chinese officials are likely aware of the questionable backgrounds of these and other leaders because Chinese intelligence agencies systematically gather granular information on overseas communities, according to Western officials, academic reports, human rights groups and Chinese dissidents.

According to Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, many immigrants from Fujian, a coastal province with a history of organized crime and official corruption, come from modest backgrounds and illegally enter the country. Because they often visit family or do business in China, they feel pressure to develop good relationships with Chinese officials, she said.

“The CCP has leverage over them, ” Wang said. You must show loyalty in China if you want to return to China, you need a passport, or you want to clean up a criminal record there. ”

Chinese officials are increasingly willing to interact with them, even those who are organized crime figures, according to experts, and if leaders show loyalty.

“As the Chinese government has been expanding its power across the world, the organized crime connections with the state have grown, ” a former national security official said. “They have gotten much closer. The influence of the Chinese government has grown. There is a lot of incentive to work together. ”

The Chinese embassy did not respond to questions about specific cases. In an interview, a Chinese consular official acknowledged that Chinese officials have regular contact with US diaspora associations. However, the official refuted the claim that the Chinese government is aware of community leaders and works with them despite their involvement in criminal activity.

“We have five million Chinese nationals living in the USA, ” said the consular official, who requested anonymity because they are not the official spokesperson. Regardless of who we are, we just have a connection to various organizations. … We could n’t be able to know everybody. ”

The associations have also kept law enforcement busy in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, Anderson and other officials told ProPublica and The Frontier that members of Fujianese associations are targets of investigations into organized crime. Association leaders in Oklahoma City did not respond to requests for comment.

During a raid last year on the Fuzhou Chamber of Commerce, police busted an illegal casino, arrested three suspects and seized drugs and$ 79,000 in cash from 18 people, including two who had criminal convictions and several involved in the marijuana industry, according to court documents and public records. Surveillance had detected numerous cars in the parking lot that were connected to narcotics investigations, court records say. One of the three arrested has pleaded not guilty, the other was arrested on a marijuana cultivation warrant in Colorado, and the third has not been charged. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) )

According to court records, city inspectors located card tables, video slot machines, and other indications of an illegal casino in 2020 on Classen Boulevard at the American Fujian Association. The police vice squad has investigated alleged gambling in the ground-floor suite, according to court testimony and public records. No charges have been filed in that case. The organization’s leaders did not respond to requests for comment.

Two years after the shooting in 2020 at the association, the two accused assailants became victims in the quadruple murder at the marijuana farm in Kingfisher County. As a result, investigators looked into the 2020 shooting for connections to organized crime and the farm massacre, and they discovered that the killer and some of his victims had spent time at the association.

Despite the troubles of the American Fujian Association, Consul General Zhu chose to meet there with community leaders days after the quadruple murder, according to photos, media reports and a participant in the meeting at the association. During that visit in November 2022, the diplomat talked to relatives of the victims about funeral arrangements and the transport of one of the bodies to New York, according to a media report and a participant at the meeting

At the America Changle Association in Manhattan, where US prosecutors claim an illegal Chinese police station was assisting with the surveillance and intimidation of dissidents, Pan Muyong circled. The blue sign on the left says Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station. Photo by Louis Zhao/YouTube

Those present included prominent Fujianese figures from New York who have invested in Oklahoma’s marijuana boom, media reports and photos show. One of them was Pan Muyong, a veteran national leader of several groups.

“We are deeply anxious and uneasy, ” Pan told the visitors from the embassy, according to a report by SinoVision, a Chinese-language media outlet. We Chinese people run farms and grow marijuana in accordance with local government regulations and laws, not in violation of the media’s reporting. ”

Pan has been an executive of the America Changle Association in New York, according to media reports and photos. Federal prosecutors accused two other members of that organization of running the obscene Chinese police station in Manhattan last year.

Photos and media reports place Pan with the defendants during the period of time when, according to the federal criminal complaint, they allegedly helped Chinese security forces monitor dissidents in the United States. A sign for the station is visible on a wall in a video that shows Pan giving a speech in the association offices where the allegedly illegal police station is located.

Pan interacts regularly with Chinese diplomats and other officials, according to photos and media reports. Last year, he and other pro-Beijing leaders held signs as they protested the visit of Taiwan’s president to New York, video and media reports show. Pan and other Oklahoma-connected figures are also active in New York politics, donating to campaigns and participating in fundraising, according to photos, reports, and campaign records.

Pan has not been charged with a crime. He declined a phone request for comment and did not respond to emails.

But four people who posed for photos with him and the consul in Oklahoma City have pleaded guilty or been charged or investigated for offenses including drug trafficking, illegal firearms possession and obstructing officers, court records show.

Ling Chen, for example, pleaded guilty last June to maintaining a place for selling drugs in a case in which authorities confiscated$ 42,000 from her and two other defendants, court records show. According to court records, Chen Min Zhang admitted guilt in 2021 to possessing cocaine and obtaining drug proceeds, a crime that resulted in the forfeiture of$ 32,000. Ke Xiang Chen has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial after an arrest last October for alleged possession of ketamine and ecstasy and acquiring drug proceeds, court records show.

None of the three responded to emails, phone calls, or legal requests for comment.

The fourth, Qiu He, was arrested last April in the investigation of an alleged network that set up illegal marijuana farms, court records show. She has not been charged with a crime and denied any wrongdoing in an interview with ProPublica and The Frontier. She is attempting to recover nearly$ 1,000,000 worth of drug seized funds.

He, who had a grandparent from Fujian, said members of the community asked her to attend the 2022 meeting with the consul general to translate Mandarin for people who only spoke a Fujianese dialect. She claimed she has not returned and that she is only aware of the association.

In addition to He, three other people in the photos with the consul general have surfaced in investigations of fraudulent owner schemes for marijuana farms. Although they have not been charged with crimes in relation to those investigations, Ling Chen, Jun Can Zhang and Weixing Feng have jointly owned marijuana farms with people who are being prosecuted or investigated for serving as paid straw owners for dozens of growing operations, court documents and public records show. They did not respond to comments on the website.

Ling Chen, Ke Xiang Chen and Junli Zhang also managed or had an ownership interest in Lucky Zhang’s, a restaurant and nightclub near the Fujianese association that was outfitted with high-tech lighting and individual karaoke rooms, court documents and public records show. According to court documents, investigators discovered the club as a potential site of human trafficking after learning that young Asian women living there frequently traveled to Lucky Zhang’s and spent the night there. Police raided the club on Nov. 5, 2022, and again on Feb. During court hearings, interviews, and social media posts, there are 15 April 2023, making arrests and seizing cash and drugs.

The November raid resulted in the prosecution in which the manager, Ling Chen, pleaded guilty, court records show. According to court records, another defendant detained at the club entered a not-guilty plea and is awaiting trial on charges of obtaining drug money and ketamine with intent to distribute.

Junli Zhang did not respond to email and phone requests for comment. Zhang was also the chair of the association on Classen Boulevard during both of the consul general’s visits, according to Chinese media reports.

The consul general made a second visit to Classen Boulevard last June. Zhu’s stated goal was to gain “an in-depth understanding of the production, life and work conditions of the farms run by overseas Chinese in Oklahoma, ” according to Chinese-language media reports. According to one article, he reportedly listened to the association’s chair’s “work report.”

“Overseas Chinese will always be members of the big family of the Chinese nation, ” the diplomat said, according to the media report. “No matter where you go, the eyes of the motherland are never far away and are always watching and caring about you. ”

Sebastian Rotella is a reporter at ProPublica. Sebastian, an award-winning foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, covers organized crime, terrorism, and intelligence. Kirsten Berg is a research reporter with ProPublica. Garrett Yalch and Clifton Adcock are reporters for The Frontier.