The U.S. has prosecuted a Chinese couple for scheming to establish a Hong Kong-style region in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.

According to the Justice Department, 50-year-old Cary Yan, and 34-year-old Gina Zhou engaged in a multiyear plot to turn the Rongelap Atoll into a Semi-Autonomous Region (SAR). The U.S. conducted numerous nuclear tests at Rongelap between the 1940s and 1950s.

Prosecutors say the pair began to seek influence over Marshall Island politicians in 2016. They ran a New York-based NGO and promoted what they called the Rongelap Special Economic Zone project to the lawmakers. They offered to turn the region into a utopia for foreign investment with flexible tax and visa policies.

Six legislators accepted bribes ranging from $7,000 to $22,000 from them. One of them nominated Yan as the Marshall Islands’ special adviser. The two also acquired Marshall Island citizenship.

Legislation in favor of the planned SAR was submitted to parliament in 2018 by members who had accepted kickbacks. 

The island’s then-president, Hilda Heine, vehemently opposed the law, and blocked the passing. After Heine lost the 2019 general election, the pair urged certain officials to proceed with the SAR plan. A resolution endorsing the SAR’s concept was accepted by the new parliament in March 2020. 

Yan and Zhou were detained in Thailand in November 2020. They were subsequently extradited and arrived on September 6 in the Southern District of New York.

The DOJ says the couple could each spend up to 20 years in prison for each count of money laundering. They could also spend up to five years in jail for breaking the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

They pleaded not guilty to the accusations.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said, “Yan and Zhou’s bribes blatantly flouted the sovereignty of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and its legislature, and the dedicated investigative work carried out by this Office and our partners signals that the Southern District of New York will not tolerate those who violate the integrity of democratic processes.”
The Marshall Islands were under U.S. administration until their independence in 1986. According to the State Department, the U.S. continues to have full authority and responsibility for the region’s defense.

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