SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

The real winners of the China-Hong Kong handover are the vicious triads whose influence now extends to 1 billion people.

By Jonathan Broder

Published July 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

while Republican Sen. Fred Thompson tries vainly to prove that Chinese Communist money illegally made its way into U.S. political campaigns and the pundits debate whether Hong Kong's freewheeling capitalism can survive under the red flag of the mainland, a much bigger, more ominous story is being ignored: that organized crime may have just taken over a major slice of the Asian continent.

The biggest winners of the historic handover of Hong Kong to China two weeks ago, argues journalist and author Frederic Dannen, are Hong Kong's triad societies, the secretive gangs that have controlled the city's underworld since 1949. In an alarming article in the July 14-21 New Republic, Dannen writes that in return for the triads' support of Beijing, China's communist leaders are doing business with the gangs. The result: a state-sponsored criminal alliance that is bound to change the face of Hong Kong and could be felt as far away as the United States.

Salon spoke to Dannen at his home in New York.

Is China actually doing business with the triads now?

Yes. One of their biggest partners is the People's Liberation Army, which is in partnership with the triads in the kinds of business that the triads know very well -- for example, nightclubs and karaoke clubs. In Shanghai, both the PLA and the Public Security Bureau, China's secret police, own nightclubs and even brothels with various triad groups. It's believed that the PLA is involved in a number of smuggling enterprises with triad groups, including bootleg cigarettes, illegal aliens and possibly even arms smuggling and heroin smuggling to the United States.

The PLA also has a number of above-ground businesses.

It has a multibillion-dollar portfolio. It includes phone networks, hotels, restaurants and pro basketball teams, not to mention many businesses in the United States. And if the triads have the protection of the PLA, we're talking about a rogue state here. We're talking about the collusion of the world's last great totalitarian power and the world's largest criminal fraternity.

How did this alliance between Beijing and the Hong Kong triads come about?

It was part of (former Chinese leader) Deng Xiaoping's plan for Hong Kong from the beginning. Before China and Britain signed their agreement for the handover of Hong Kong in September of 1984, Deng was making strange noises about the triad societies. On three different occasions, he publicly referred to the triads as "good" and "patriotic." I have a friend who was part of the Hong Kong delegation to the talks with China. Now this friend knows his history, and he could not believe his ears. He was asking himself, "Is the old man losing it? What does he mean -- patriot gangsters?" But Deng wasn't losing it at all. It was very calculated on his part.

Calculated to do what?

It was part of Deng's broader strategy to figure who wasn't on China's side and get them on its side. The triads had been traditionally loyal to Taiwan. Deng made loyal patriots out of them in a way any triad can understand -- he bought their patriotism.

How do you know?

Last May, Wang Min-feng, who was the deputy secretary-general of Xinhua, the New China News Agency, and China's de facto ambassador in Hong Kong, was speaking at Baptist University in Hong Kong. There he disclosed that before China signed the treaty with Britain, he was asked by Beijing to sit down with all the heads of the Hong Kong triad societies and talk business with them. He said that he told the triad leaders that as long as they did not disrupt Hong Kong stability, China would not prevent them from making money. Now that's an extraordinary admission.

Especially considering that triads are supposed to be officially outlawed.

Right, and it means that China's assurances that Britain's legal system and judiciary will remain untouched for 50 years is utter nonsense. Under British law, it's illegal even to be a member of a triad society. Even to say you're a member of a triad society is illegal. It's considered a threat, an act of extortion. China has made a mockery of that law. Instead, they sat down with a bunch of mafia bosses and told them essentially that they can go about their illegal business, and China will turn a blind eye.

So in the new Hong Kong, you're saying, the criminals will run free?

It means that the triads, who were already quite powerful, may now be untouchable. Which means Hong Kong becomes a criminal colony. If organized crime figures can't be touched, how is the legal system going to survive? Moreover, now that China is protecting the triads and doing business with them, they can call upon them to perform all kinds of services. Just as they did for Chiang Kai-shek in 1929, they make a very good secret police force. I wouldn't be surprised if next June 4, when people in Hong Kong come out to protest Tiananmen Square, triad hooligans wearing black clothing, sunglasses and tattoos suddenly materialize and crack heads open while the police just stand by. I wouldn't be surprised if triads are used to rig local elections, to spy on people and to kidnap people Beijing wants to punish.

The triad societies started in China, as a nationalist movement, then fled mostly to Hong Kong when the communists took over in 1949. How big are they in Hong Kong today?

Today, there are four major triad societies in Hong Kong and probably more than a dozen smaller ones. The largest, the Sun Yee On, founded in 1919, has, conservatively 30,000 members, which is already larger than the entire Hong Kong police force. By some estimates, it may number twice that. That's just one society. The others, the 14K, the Wa Shing Wa, the Wa Hop Toe, are all very large as well. They're all involved in prostitution and illegal gambling. They're very big in narcotics. Hong Kong is the key transit point for the Southeast Asian heroin that's shipped to the United States. They're extremely big in counterfeiting, both goods and financial instruments, particularly credit cards. They're very big in extortion. They've divided up Hong Kong into geographic sections, and establishments are required to pay protection money if they don't want something unfortunate to happen. That includes the luxury hotels in Sim Sa Choy, the most touristy part of Kowloon.

And if you don't pay, what happens?

You get chopped. A chopper is a long machete-like knife that is used to kill and maim. One way that the triads traditionally show displeasure is to chop off limbs. One man I interviewed was named Leung Tin-wei, the publisher of Surprise weekly, one of the many gossipy, tabloid-style magazines in Hong Kong. In May 1996, Leung Tin-wei was about to launch the premier issue of Surprise weekly when two well-dressed men walked into his office, escorted him into the conference room, closed the door and chopped off his left forearm with a chopper. No one knows for sure why they did this, but we do know that a triad-related article was dropped from the premier issue. When I submitted my article to the New Republic, I had to reassure (editor) Michael Kelly that triads do not traditionally chop white people. He said he was glad to hear that because he was rather fond of his left forearm.

Like the Yakuza in Japan, do they also run legal enterprises?

They run all the mini-buses in Hong Kong. They're very big in the property market and they pretty much control the foreign exchange business. The biggest triad-run industry is the Hong Kong movie business. Triads have used extremely violent methods, including murder, kidnapping and rape, to ensure that Hong Kong's biggest stars act in their movies.

Why haven't the British-run police been able to stop them?

In the 1970s, the corruption of the police was so serious that Hong Kong almost came apart at the seams. Matters reached a head when Peter Godber, a high-ranking officer in the royal Hong Kong police, was asked to explain why his bank balance was six times greater than his income. Rather than explain, he fled to Britain, where he was later arrested, extradited to Hong Kong and convicted of corruption. There was such unrest over this and other police corruption scandals that in February 1974, the crown government created the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

What will happen to the commission under the Chinese?

Many in Hong Kong, and elsewhere, ask the same question. Until now, the United States has had terrific cooperation with the ICAC. We had an extradition treaty which was much used, particularly against large-scale heroin traffickers. Now law enforcement people in the United States and Canada are wondering whether they can trust the Hong Kong police anymore. How can we be sure triads haven't infiltrated the police? And how can we be sure that China might not force the police to compromise an investigation? For the past two decades or so, our law enforcement window into what went on in Southeast Asia was through Hong Kong. Now I fear we're going to lose that.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------