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  • Chinese Human Smuggling Organizations: Families, Social Networks, and Cultural Imperatives
  • Zai Liang (bio)
Sheldon X. Zhang . Chinese Human Smuggling Organizations: Families, Social Networks, and Cultural Imperatives. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. 281 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8047-5741-6.

Keen observers of Chinese immigrants in the United States will notice that two fundamental changes have taken place in recent years. First, America's Chinatowns are no longer as dominated by Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrant as they once were. Indeed, if one strolls along in Chinatown in Manhattan, one hears dialects that represent different regions of China: Fuzhou dialect, Shanghai dialect, Zhejiang dialect, and northeastern China dialect. Among the new immigrants from China, perhaps the largest group is from China's Fujian province. [End Page 288]

The second major change is the mushrooming of Chinese restaurants in the United States. According to Jennifer 8 Lee in her new book Fortune Cookie Chronicle, the total number of Chinese restaurants has surpassed the number of McDonalds and Burger Kings combined. The dramatic increase in Chinese restaurants in all locations—rural or urban, towns big or small—is attributable to the Fujianese immigrants who own most of these new restaurants, often in non-traditional immigrant destinations.

The rise in Fujianese immigration has stimulated growing research efforts in this area. Several major books have been published, from Peter Kwong's 1997 book Forbidden Workers to Ko-lin's Chin's Smuggled Chinese and Frank Pieke and colleagues' 2004 study of Fujianese in Europe. Sheldon Zhang's new book is the most recent addition to this growing body of literature. What distinguishes the story of Fujianese immigration and other Chinese immigrants is that human smuggling organizations play an important role in bringing Fujinaese immigrants to the United States. In fact, this operation is a very big business.

In Chinese Human Smuggling Organizations, Zhang analyzes the role of human smugglers ("snakeheads," or shetou in Chinese) in the process of international migration from China's Fujian province to the United States. He provides a rare and fascinating account of how these smuggling organizations function and conduct their business. It is a path breaking book in that this is the first time any scholar has done such a systematic study of Chinese human smuggling organizations. In doing so, the book has demystified many common assumptions about human smuggling organizations. The book also proposes an innovative theoretical model to understand human smuggling organizations.

The book is based on many years of fieldwork in New York City, Los Angles, and Fuzhou in China. The empirical materials consist of interviews with 129 smugglers (including a few incarcerated snakeheads in China) and scores of government and law enforcement officials. One can imagine it would be extremely difficult to locate human smugglers who are willing to participate in a research project. It is even more difficult to to locate so many human smugglers who are willing to talk to researchers. The author is to be commended for gaining the trust of his subjects and making this possible. Through these interviews, we have gained valuable information on basic socio-demographic characteristics of human smugglers, the history of their business, and details of their business operation. For example, nearly half of these smugglers are U.S. citizens or holders of green cards. The remaining smugglers are Chinese citizens, an indication that the smuggling business must involve communities in migrant destinations and origins.

Human smuggling is an extremely complex operation that involves players in multiple locations across the globe. One intriguing question is, how do these snakeheads win the trust of local people in China? After all, we are talking about people who risk their lives on these often dangerous journeys that take people to far away locations using different modes of transportation. In this regard, we [End Page 289] learn that smuggling operations happen among closely knitted groups of friends and relatives. Thus, smugglers use family, friendship, and shared community ties to recruit potential migrants. These connections ensure some basic level of trust between aspiring migrants and human smugglers. In addition, snakeheads strive to be good and reliable businessmen. Thus, in the event of failed operations, snakeheads will often pay...


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