Controversy over ambitious Chinese-themed development in rural New York

18 December 2013

A proposed China-themed development featuring a mall modelled after the Forbidden City in small-town America near the Catskill Mountains has come under fire from a range of critics, but promoters say the criticism is based on bigotry and xenophobia.

The "China City of America" scheme, proposed for rural Sullivan County, New York will, if it goes ahead, have a new college, a casino, an amusement park themed on Chinese dynasties and culture, and a mall modelled after the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing.

It aims to attract wealthy Chinese investors under the United States’ visa program known as ‘EB-5’, which allows foreign nationals to get a green card if each invests $500,000 in a rural place and creates 10 jobs for US citizens.

Early versions of the plan envisaged a $6bn, 2,000-acre site spread over the towns of Mamakating and Thompson, but a more modest revised version includes a new visual and performing arts college and family and student housing in the first phase.

Local critics of the project, now proposed for a 575-acre site at Thompson, have raised a raft of objections, saying that it will not create jobs, that it will harm the environment, and that it will lead to unwanted immigration.

The proposed China City of America would be located in the vicinity of the village of Monticello (pictured), Sullivan County, New York (Doug Kerr/Wikimedia Commons)

American think-tank, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), argues that it is financially unviable and even warns that the scheme is a Trojan horse for Chinese influence over America. For this it quotes unnamed sources from an American affiliate of Falun Gong, a spiritual organisation banned in China.

But last week China City of America, Inc. (CCOA), led by Chinese-American businesswoman Sherry Li, hit back, saying the criticisms are based on xenophobia and bigotry.

In a strongly worded statement issued 12 December Jacob Billig, CCOA’s local land use attorney, said the environmental concerns are from "a local extremist environmental group".

Ms Li called Falun Gong a "Chinese community group" with "no credibility".

And CCOA’s American immigration attorney, Larry Behar of the Behar Law Group – who specialises in EB-5 – accused the Center for Immigration Studies of "spreading xenophobia that smacks of classic McCarthy era behavior".

America’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL) – which CCOA said had been "fighting bigotry for 100 years" – waded in with support.

A rendering of the proposed development

ADL co-director Marilyn Mayo said the CIS was trenchantly anti-immigration, and added: "Throughout its history, Center for Immigration Studies staffers have made a number of racist statements."

Sherry Li is an American citizen originally from Chengdu, China, who for the past 10 years has been raising capital for property schemes.

In an interview with GCR she said CCOA first submitted its application to the local authority in December 2011, and that she was confident that approval would be given and construction would begin soon.

"We’ve had five meetings with the [Thompson town council] planning board so far, with another scheduled for tomorrow, and we’ve made good progress," she said, adding that a "top professional team" of planners, engineers, architects, construction managers and insurance experts had been employed.

Ms Li said the college would become an "incubator" for the entertainment provided in the amusement park, which she said would be like Disneyland.

She said she expected that a high number of Chinese students would attend, but that anyone could enrol.

"It will create tremendous jobs," she said, "and will be a great destination for American families."

She would not reveal the number of Chinese investors signed up for the scheme.

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