Sister Ping the Smuggler: Villain to the Feds, Hero to Chinese Immigrants

For more than 15 years, Cheng Chui Ping – known as Sister Ping – was the ringleader of a Chinese human smuggling network that operated out of New York and Hong Kong. But the federal government’s villain was a saint to many of those she smuggled to America’s shores.

“Sister Ping was very generous and gave liberally to the poor and the needy,” Michael Chu told the New York Times. “She always helped people who were caught in difficult situations.”

In the Chinese immigrant community, Sister Ping was a household name and viewed as a success story. Ping smuggled thousands into the U.S. and amassed an estimated $40 million fortune.

Unfortunately, the law caught up to her, and in 2000, she was arrested in Hong Kong, extradited to the United States, and sentenced to 35 years in federal prison. Last week, she died of cancer while incarcerated at a facility in Texas at the age of 65.

From a poor farming family in the Fijian province of China, Ping eventually settled in New York’s Chinatown in 1981, opened a small shop, and began smuggling Chinese immigrants thereafter. A hard worker, she was an undeniably savvy businesswoman who built a sizable smuggling network comprised of informants, cargo ships and dangerous gangs.

Ping was a shetou, which in Mandarin means “head of a snake” and “human smuggler.” The immigrants she trafficked were largely Fujianese, and had many reasons for leaving China, including political repression, forced abortions and a bleak outlook despite relentlessly agonizing labor.

“She was never quite as bad as the Justice Department made her out to be, and never quite as good as people in Chinatown made her out to be,” Patrick Radden Keefe told the New York Times.

His 2009 book, “The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream” chronicled Ping’s operations as a human trafficker.

The practice of illegally trafficking Chinese immigrants was fueled by changes to the patchy framework that is our U.S. immigration policy.

After the 1989 massacre at Tianamen Square, President George H.W. Bush issued executive orders granting amnesty to Chinese students in the U.S. and increased acceptance of asylum applications for Chinese nationals. Coupled with lax residency requirements for Chinese immigrants, the 1980’s birthed a rise of illegal human trafficking from Asia.

It’s a familiar tale in America.

The black market follows a national change in policy and absorbs those excluded by legislation. By the mid-nineties, immigrant smuggling from China to the U.S. was a multi-billion dollar industry.

Desperate people abroad decide to flee, connect with “coyotes” or “shetous,” and agree to egregious conditions with no guarantee of success. For her services, Ping scored as much as $35,000 per person.

There will always be villains operating on the fringes who are idolized by those who have experienced the struggle firsthand. What remains to be seen is whether or not any fundamental changes to our immigration policy will ever stem the tide of human smuggling through the next century.