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Chinese Organized Crime

Asian criminal enterprises have been operating in the U.S. since the early 1900s. The first of these groups evolved from Chinese tongs—social organizations formed by early Chinese-American immigrants. A century later, the criminalized tongs are thriving and have been joined by similar organizations with ties to East and Southeast Asia.

Organized crime groups, also referred to in China as "black societies" and "underworld groups", have become a growing concern in China. In 2004, an organized crime expert at the University of Nanjing [in Jiangsu province] estimated that there were approximately one million black society members in China (Reuters 24 Aug. 2004). The prevalence of organized crime groups and criminal activity in the country has been attributed to corrupt Chinese authorities and widespread poverty.

Their collaboration of black societies in China with government and justice system officials has becomed closer with the turn fo the century. A greater number of organized crime groups are receiving political protection and manage to escape detection or prosecution. Most organized crime groups are reportedly protected by authorities, referred to as "baohusan, or protecting umbrella". Baohusan is a government official who takes bribes from criminals and in turn provides protection to the criminals and their illegal activities.

A 2001 report on black societies in China noted that the number of criminal groups has been increasing and that the "violence, ruthlessness, and scale" of their activities have intensified. According to a book by He Bingsong,, the "most serious" organized crime problems for Chinese authorities are "drug distribution, gambling, prostitution, and violence". Other foremost organized crime problems of concern to Chinese officials are drug manufacturing, political-criminal connections (i.e., bribery, corruption), and the penetration of organized crime groups into legitimate businesses.

Rates of organized crime, or black society activity, vary geographically as a result of such factors as economic development, effectiveness of local authorities, and differences in local culture and customs. Major or serious crimes are more prevalent in the north and west of China than in the south and east. The types of crime committed in each region tend to remain fairly stable: homicides most prevalent in the north, drug trafficking in the south, robbery in the west and theft in the east. Serious organized crime is most prevalent in small and medium-sized cities where the economy is underdeveloped. Road robbery is often seen in remote areas whereas criminal enterprises are often established in wealthy areas. The coastal province of Guangdong is reportedly among the Chinese provinces with the most criminal organizations.

A number of general characteristics of organised crime in China suggest that local market vendors may be forced by criminal groups to pay protection money. Organised crime in China tends to be made up of a small group of individuals no greater than 200 people, who operate in an extremely localised area – such as townships – and who rely on local corrupt politicians, authorities and police. Growth beyond a localised area is restricted as it receives greater attention from the central government authorities.

State protection from criminal gang activity is limited in China by the strong association that can exist between criminals and officials, increasing the likelihood that police may not act against gangsters. The "gangsterisation" of Chinese villages results from rural communities falling under the control of thugs, often with the support of local officials. The authorities in Beijing rail from time to time against village-level thuggery, but their ability to control it is clearly limited because of the close connection at the local level between officials and criminals.

The extent of police involvement is evidenced by the fact that in the nine years to 2006, over 10,000 policemen were suspended on account of affiliation with organised crime.

The term “Chinese” refers to individuals of purely Chinese ethnic origin living in any part of the world. The criminal groups vary in size and degree of structure; they include syndicates, triads, gangs, and ad hoc combinations of organization members and non-members. Because of this variety, an increasing tendency toward ad hoc activity, and the lack of specificity in many open sources, the term “group” is used when a criminal activity is not attributed to a specific type of organization.

The activities of Chinese criminal groups have caused increasing alarm among law enforcement officials in Australia, Japan, North America, Russia, South Africa, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe. Exhibiting substantial flexibility and pragmatism, such groups have expanded their territory and their range of activities to take advantage of conditions and markets in host countries. Chinese groups around the world are active in trafficking of narcotics, arms, people, and endangered animals and plants; financial fraud; software piracy; prostitution; gambling; loan sharking; robbery; and high-tech theft.1 The two most widespread and profitable criminal activities are trafficking narcotics and people.

Chinese criminal groups are transnational in the most literal sense. Their members may have been born in the People’s Republic of China (which now includes Hong Kong and Macau), Taiwan, or one of many overseas Chinese communities located throughout the world. Émigré members have migrated widely without losing touch with their home base. International crime expert Roger Faligot says of the Teochow, which from its base in Guangdong Province has become one of the most powerful crime groups in Europe: “Organized on the basis of tight links and featuring great loyalty, all the Teochow in the world are connected today by a dialect and a common origin from seven villages near the city of Swatow [Shantou].”

Despite this context of organizational loyalty, even in today’s Hong Kong Chinese transnational crime enterprises show a strong tendency toward overlapping membership and pragmatic, ad hoc cooperation that defies categorization of the participants. The major triads of Hong Kong all have members from the Big Circle, which is a large, loose triad-like crime group.

The triad, a form of secret society that first appeared in the seventeenth century in southern China in opposition to emperors of the Qing Dynasty, is the organizational form most often associated with Chinese organized crime.5 In the twentieth century, after centuries of existence as guilds and benevolent societies, the triads lost their political raison d’etre when the Manchu Empire ended in 1911. Some triads then turned to narcotics trafficking, extortion, gambling, and loan sharking. The Vietnam War brought significant overseas expansion of the groups’ narcotics activities. Hong Kong now is the center of triad activity in China, although triad membership there is a criminal offense. As many as 57 triads, varying greatly in size, have been identified in Hong Kong—although only 15 to 20 of those organizations are currently involved in criminal activity.

Although the triad is a hierarchical organization with fixed rituals and division of labor, the upper levels function more as resolvers of disputes and sources of international prestige and financing than as direct managers of criminal activity. Compared with the strict hierarchical structure of Italian crime groups, for example, the triads are “loose affiliations in the extreme,” offering full autonomy to members in their selection of criminal activities.9 Top individuals in the triad structure often have established reputations as legitimate businessmen.

All transnational Chinese crime groups do not owe their membership or their structure to the triad model. Narcotics syndicates, for example, may include both members and non-members of a triad. In contrast to the triads, the syndicates tend to be pragmatic assemblages that dissipate and reconfigure over time, making detection more difficult.

Other types of ethnic Chinese criminal groups also have appeared. One such type, the Taiwanese organized gang, originated in Taiwan in the 1950s and adopted some triad-like rituals and structure. By the 1980s, the Taiwanese gangs had diversified significantly in activity and spread to other parts of the world. Characterized by one crime expert as “the most powerful and important ethnic group in transnational Chinese organized crime,” Taiwan-based groups are active in transnational trafficking of arms, narcotics, and people, as well as financial crimes.12 The two largest such groups are United Bamboo and the Four Seas, both of which are present in the United States.

Economic reforms and openings to the West since the 1980s encouraged criminal groups based in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan to expand into the southern China provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejian, and Yunnan. Having established narcotics connections in the Golden Triangle adjacent to Yunnan Province and a strong demand for migrant trafficking in Fujian and Zhejian provinces, these groups now constitute a third source of transnational Chinese crime.

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Page last modified: 27-02-2016 19:43:53 ZULU