Sheldon Zhang Researches Human Trafficking, Transnational Crime

Sheldon Zhang, the new chairman of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, researches transnational crime and labor trafficking. Image by Katharine Webster
Sheldon Zhang, the new chairman of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, researches human trafficking and transnational crime.

By Katharine Webster

Sheldon Zhang, the new chairman of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, has big plans for the school—global plans.

Zhang, who has won five National Institute of Justice research grants in the past decade and consulted with the White House and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, researches transnational crime and labor trafficking along with correctional and rehabilitation policy. He hopes to build up the school’s global expertise in those areas, leveraging his experience working with international partners and foundations.

“If we can involve countries like Australia and the European countries or developing countries in research, I think we have a really good opportunity to build this program to prominence — not just nationally, but internationally,” he says.

The foundation is already here, along with a plan to grow, he says. In the last several years, faculty have won millions of dollars in grants to study radicalization and counterterrorism, military decision-making, sex crimes and sex offender policy. 

They have also won grants to study opioid abuse and prescription drug monitoring, juvenile justice and reform, mental health issues in corrections and policing and more. 

The school serves a growing number of students, including nearly 700 undergraduate criminal justice majors on campus, about 200 students in the criminal justice and security studies master’s programs (on campus and online) and 30 doctoral candidates. The Division of Online and Continuing Education enrolls another 165 undergraduate criminal justice majors and about 200 students in five graduate certificate programs. Students in the justice administration track of the Master of Public Administration program also take criminal justice graduate classes.

“This school is up-and-coming. We have a lot of faculty here who are young, energetic and vibrant and a lot of students, so I find that exciting,” Zhang says.

From Journalist to Sociologist

Zhang’s background has contributed to his success, both as a researcher and a teacher. Born in China, he majored in English literature in college and then worked as a reporter and copy editor for the Xinhua News Agency, the official news outlet for the communist government. 

After three years of working in Beijing alongside international reporters from major wire services and newspapers, he won a full scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he earned his master’s in journalism.

“Journalism taught me two important skills that made me a very successful sociologist: writing well and on deadline, and talking to total strangers,” he says.

He worked briefly as a reporter at City News Service in Los Angeles and The Press Enterprise in Riverside, then applied to a handful of Ph.D. programs in journalism and the graduate program in sociology at USC. When he was accepted, he decided to stay where he was rather than move halfway across the country. He jokes that sheer “laziness” sent him on a different career path.

Transnational Crime and Human Trafficking

Earning his doctorate, he specialized in two areas — criminology as well as marriage and family — and worked as a researcher with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, studying Asian juvenile delinquents and gangs.

At California State University at San Marcos, he studied Chinese organized crime in cities, then transnational crime, especially the networks that smuggle Chinese immigrants into the United States through Latin America, Europe and Canada. What he found upset the accepted wisdom: The smuggling operations weren’t run by Asian organized crime families, but by loose networks of Chinese entrepreneurs across the globe who drove, housed or supplied fake documents for immigrants.

“All the pockets of the Chinese community were effectively turned into way stations where they successfully moved migrants one stage at a time and into the U.S.,” he says. “People were bound together only by their mutual desire to make money.”

At San Diego State University, he won a large grant to study sex trafficking in Tijuana, Mexico, and another one to research other types of labor trafficking in southern California. He found higher levels of exploitation among illegal immigrants working as gardeners, restaurant and hotel workers, construction workers and landscapers, than among migrant farm workers.

Now Zhang, who served as chairman of San Diego State’s sociology department from 2007 to 2013, is finishing up a similar study of migrant farm workers in North Carolina and starting another three-part study in the impoverished state of Bihar, India, that looks at bonded labor — labor extracted to repay cash loans by employers, made at extortionate interest rates — as well as sex trafficking and child labor.

He looks forward to teaching a graduate class in transnational organized crime this spring — and to the challenge of helping faculty find international partnerships and research grants.

“We need to find funding resources to support the program growth.”