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Blood Brothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia by Bertil Lintner


Crime--and Punishment?

Organized crime groups have always played an important role in Chinese society. Today, against a backdrop of a booming economy, their fortunes are reviving.

Blood Brothers: Crime, Business And Politics In Asia, by Bertil Lintner. Allen & Unwin. A$31.82 ($18)

Criminals exist outside the law, but not outside society. Nowhere is this more true than in Asia, where the tentacles of organized crime reach far into the worlds of business, politics and even law enforcement. In his latest book, Blood Brothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia, REVIEW Senior Writer Bertil Lintner examines the nature of these entanglements both in the region and outside it.

In the following extracts, Lintner looks at the revival of organized crime in China, and at its continuing role in Hong Kong. On the mainland, maritime piracy and triad activity has increased in recent years, alongside soaring economic growth. Beijing regularly declares war on crime, but its commitment is questionable. Perhaps that's not surprising, says Lintner: Organized crime, with its predictable behaviour and links to business and even officialdom, may be preferable to the alternative--the chaos of disorganized crime.

* * *

IT WAS EXECUTION DAY IN SHANWEI, an isolated town on the rugged, pirate-infested coast of China's Guangdong province. Thirteen men, handcuffed and shackled, had already been herded into the town's courtroom on charges of piracy. They staggered out soon after with their fates sealed: death by firing squad. "Doomsday arrives for 'evil monsters' of the sea," declared the local authorities with medieval relish, although afterwards they mellowed somewhat and allowed the pirates to drink a large amount of wine, "to help take away the tension of being executed," as one official put it. Thousands of people gathered outside the courthouse for a glimpse of the damned men as they were led away to the execution grounds. By then, most of the pirates were profoundly drunk and singing loudly.

To the people of Shanwei--to anyone familiar with the dark traditions of the South China Sea--there was nothing unusual about this scene. In the beginning of the 19th century, hordes of men and women were organized in confederated fleets with thousands of junks, which dominated the entire coastal region of southern China. They were at one and the same time immortalized in local folklore, which often depicted them as Robin Hoods who stole from the rich and resisted the oppressive authority of the emperors, and, less romantically, feared by their victims, most of whom were actually ordinary people living along the coast.

The scene in Shanwei, however, was not taken from ancient history. It happened in January 2000--as was obvious to anyone who heard the drunken pirates sing. Jumping up and down in his rattling chains, Yang Jingtao, a 25-year-old pirate, led the chorus with a boisterous rendition of Ricky Martin's theme song for the 1998 World Cup, ironically called The Cup of Life:

Go, go, go!

Olé, olé, olé . . .

Before Yang and his fellow convicts had time to sober up, they were trucked away to an open field on the outskirts of Shanwei, forced to kneel in a row, and dispatched one by one by an executioner with a Kalashnikov--one bullet through the back of the head, one bullet through the heart. A coroner was on hand to certify the deaths. Then, in the Chinese tradition, the families were billed for the price of the bullets.

The 13 pirates were among 38 defendants who had been convicted of hijacking the Hong Kong-owned Chang Sheng cargo ship on November 19, 1998. Disguised as officers from Chinese Customs and the Public Security Bureau, they had boarded the ship off Kaohsiung in Taiwan while it was on its way from Shanghai to a port in Malaysia to unload thousands of tonnes of furnace slag. The 23-man crew of the Chang Sheng was bludgeoned to death and their bodies dumped in the sea. The ship was later sold to an unknown foreign buyer for about $300,000, and the pirates divided up the money.

It was no mean feat of the Chinese authorities to track down and arrest the pirates. But Beijing was eager to show that it was serious about the alarming rise in various types of crime, one of the most worrisome side effects of the free-market reforms introduced in the early 1980s. Piracy is only one tradition of China's dark history that is back with a vengeance after years of rigid communist rule. In October 2000, China admitted for the first time the existence in the mainland of crime related to the country's legendary secret societies, the triads. These bands of outlaws were even more powerful than the pirates before Mao Zedong's revolution of 1949--and certainly more revered by the public, as they claimed to be true Chinese patriots who owed their origin to the struggle against the "foreign" Manchu dynasty that seized power from the more indigenous Ming line of emperors in the 17th century.

According to legend, the triads claim as their founders a secret sect of monks and avengers. Today's Chinese triads are involved in drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, the stealing of cultural relics, illegal aliens smuggling, gambling and prostitution, said a report [in the official state media, citing Cai Shaoqing, a professor at Nanjing University who studies organized crime]. It went on to state that "there are at least one million triad members in China" today. This is hardly surprising. For modern China's teeming hordes of millions of migrant workers finding jobs is not easy. The tightly knit criminal fraternity that the triads offer means both economic survival and mutual protection for many drifters who find themselves lost in a hostile environment. "Triad activities," the report went on, "are not only rampant in the vast countryside but also in leading cities such as Shenyang and Tianjin in the north, Guangzhou in the south, and in Shanghai." It blamed corrupt officials and policemen for providing the criminals with a "protective umbrella," which made it difficult to deal with the situation.

As the execution of the pirates was meant to show, China's communist leaders want to be seen to be moving with a firm hand to crush the resurgence of crime in a country that is still struggling with the difficult task of establishing the rule of law in place of ideologically motivated campaigns against "counter-revolutionaries"--the main enemies of the state over the past several decades. But how deep does the commitment go? And to what extent are other pre-revolutionary phenomena--such as the age-old Chinese tradition of a symbiosis between officialdom and organized crime--also re-emerging?

On April 8, 1993, just as the people of British-ruled Hong Kong were starting to get used to the idea of a return to the "motherland," Tao Siju, chief of China's Public Security Bureau, gave an informal press conference to a group of television reporters from the territory. After making it clear that the "counter-revolutionaries" who had demonstrated for democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 would not have their long prison terms reduced, he began talking about the triads: "As for organizations like the triads in Hong Kong, as long as these people are patriotic, as long as they are concerned with Hong Kong's prosperity and stability, we should unite with them." Tao also invited them to come to China to set up businesses there.

The statement sent shockwaves through Hong Kong's police force and there was uproar in the media. Since 1845, triad membership had been a crime in Hong Kong, and the rule of law was considered one of the pillars that made it an international city. Claiming to be 'patriotic' was no excuse for breaking the law. But the people of Hong Kong should not have been surprised. Deng Xiaoping, the father of China's economic reforms, had over the years hinted at the existence of connections between China's security services and some triads in Hong Kong. In a speech in October 1984, Deng pointed out that not all triads were bad. Some of them were "good" and "patriotic."

While Deng was making those cryptic remarks in Beijing, secret meetings were held between certain triad leaders and Wong Man-fong, the deputy director of Xinhua, the New China News Agency, China's unofficial embassy in Hong Kong. Wong told them that the Chinese authorities "did not regard them the same as the Hong Kong police did." He urged them not to "destabilize Hong Kong" and to refrain from robbing China-owned enterprises. But they could continue their money-making activities.

In the years leading up to the 1997 handover, and especially when the British argued for more democratic rights to be included in Hong Kong's mini-constitution, or when Hong Kong's people themselves demonstrated their support for the pro-democracy movement in China, certain "patriotic" triads were there as Beijing's eyes and ears. They infiltrated trade unions, and even the media. Hong Kong--and increasingly even China--experienced a paradoxical throwback to Shanghai of the 1930s, when the former rulers of the country, the Kuomintang, had enlisted gangsters to control political movements and run rackets to enrich themselves and government officials alike.

In the light of such reports, some foreign observers have been quick to jump to the conclusion that organized crime and colourful "secret societies" were about to take over China. But Chinese organized crime is not, as many people surmise, a cross between the Freemasons and IBM, well-organized corporate structures shrouded in Masonic ritual. While the criminals may live outside the law, they have never been outside society. In Asia, there has always been a symbiosis between the law and crime--but only with respect to a particular kind of criminal underworld. Organized crime helps the authorities police more unpredictable, disorganized crime, for instance, to keep the streets safe.

There are also certain things governments--and big business--just can't do. A company may want to eliminate a competitor, but is unable to do so by normal, legal means. An organized crime gang can then be employed to make life difficult for the other party. When in 1984 the Kuomintang's security services in Taiwan wanted to get rid of a dissident, troublesome journalist in exile, Henry Liu, they delegated the task to hitmen from the island's most powerful crime syndicate, the United Bamboo gang. The gang was more than willing to carry out the killing, not on account of any concern about Liu, but because in exchange they would get unofficial protection for their own businesses: gambling, prostitution and loan sharking.

In Hong Kong, certain business tycoons have always used triad gangs to enforce their will on ordinary people who cannot be "persuaded" to cooperate by legal means. In early 2000, young men dressed in black T-shirts, with their chests and biceps adorned with tattoos of dragons and phoenixes, suddenly appeared in the quiet village of Pak Tin in the New Territories. They would swear and kick doors as they demanded exorbitant rents from local residents. A car was parked in the village, with a sign on its dashboard clearly indicating that its owner belonged to the well-connected Sun Yee On. When that message was not clear enough, a funeral van, an obvious sign of bad luck, was parked in Pak Tin.

The problem was that the villagers, who had lived in rural Pak Tin for generations, had refused to give up their homes to a developer. Thanks to the brave efforts of Law Yuk-kai, a local human-rights activist and law graduate, the villagers resisted both the initially formal request to quit--and the more forceful methods of the hired hoodlums. Law had the courage to assist his fellow villagers to prepare to fight for their homes.

Given the Sun Yee On's well-placed connections, Law's chances of success are difficult to determine. It is those connections that enable the Sun Yee On, and other triads, to run prostitution, illegal gambling rackets, and "protection" of street hawking, minibus services, and the film industry, which often idealizes the secret societies and their mythical origin.

Success in politics and business in Asia depends on powerful contacts, who are often above the law and adept at bending it. It is contacts, rather than the courts, that serve as arbiter; who you know, not how many lawyers you employ, that decides the outcome of difficult business undertakings and political careers. The same factors decide how successful you will be as an extortionist, a pimp or a pirate. In Chinese society especially, there has existed since ancient times a collaboration between open and secret societies, whereby mainstream business and governments and their various agencies--and even ordinary civil society--co-exist with darker forces in a mutually beneficial relationship.

This extract first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, July 25, 2002

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