Secret societies, criminal organizations, and triads have existed for centuries in China, but most were chased out after the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1949 civil war. Triads continued to flourish in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan — where many fled alongside Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Nationalists. But while the CCP drove them out of the mainland, the party has found them a very useful tool to disrupt and frustrate opponents in societies such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, where resistance to the party runs high.
The CCP only had to turn to the Nationalists to see the benefits of secret societies. In the early days of the civil war, Chiang often relied on the Green Gang, a secret society based in Shanghai, to gather information on Communists and assault them physically when necessary. Chiang’s Nationalists had also developed a relationship with the 14K, a triad that, like the Green Gang, harassed Communists and relocated to Hong Kong after the war.
By the 1990s, however, triads were well established in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the CCP had gone from seeing them as a brutal opponent to a useful tool. The lead-up to Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 demonstrated the CCP’s reliance on what Christine Loh, a former Hong Kong legislative councilor, described as an “underground front” — a network of agents, many of them with ties to the Chinese intelligence apparatus — to shape the environment in its favor.
Before the handover, in what was still British territory at the time, the CCP had built on its considerable contacts with gangsters in the south — forged largely through the personal connections between party officials and local gangsters — and drew from their ability to cross the border for various, often trade-related, activities.
After the handover, the relationship evolved. In what was now Chinese territory, pro-Beijing gangsters threatened — and on a few occasions physically assaulted — activists and the few media outlets that remained critical of Beijing. Among others, the journalist Leung Tin-wai was stabbed by suspected gang members in his office in 1996. A similar fate awaited Albert Cheng, Hong Kong’s most famous radio host, two years later. By June 2013, when opposition to Chinese rule in Hong Kong began to snowball, Chen Ping, the Shanghai-born publisher of iSun Affairs, a magazine banned in mainland China, was attacked by two men armed with batons. Staff at Next Media, which publishes Apple Daily, a strong critic of Beijing, were harassed, and the home of Jimmy Lai, the owner of Next Media (now Next Digital), was rammed with a stolen car. The attacker left a machete behind. Petrol bombs were also thrown at two gates near his residence in 2015. On Feb. 26, 2014, Kevin Lau, the former editor in chief of the Ming Pao daily and a vocal critic of Beijing, was stabbed in the back by two men who claimed they each had been paid $100,000 Hong Kong dollars to “teach Lau a lesson.”
Later that same year, dozens of masked men physically attacked Occupy Central members and pro-democracy activists and tore down their tents. According to Hong Kong police, as many as 200 gang members from two major triad groups had “infiltrated the protest camps, possibly in order to stir up violence that would discredit demonstrators.”
Although many suspected who was behind the repression — nobody else had the same motivation to act — the attacks were hard to directly trace back to Beijing. But the circumstantial evidence points strongly in the mainland’s direction. Though the former colony was now under Chinese control, the CCP still needed to exercise some restraint in the use of force against elements in Hong Kong it deemed undesirable. Beijing knew full well that unleashing the People’s Liberation Army or riot police would be too direct an intervention into the affairs of a region that, technically, had retained the right to run its own affairs. Direct assault by the state apparatus would have been counterproductive and likely would have alienated a larger number of Hong Kong residents. Pro-Beijing thugs were easily manipulated, had no compunction in using force, and, more importantly, offered plausible deniability.
In Taiwan, organized crime played a similar role in some instances, where it, too, harassed and threatened anti-Beijing elements (chief among them the pro-independence camp). However, where triads in Hong Kong were used sparingly so as not to fuel social instability, over time pro-Beijing crime syndicates operating in Taiwan would be called on to do just that, as a means to discredit Taiwan’s democracy and its leadership. By the second decade of the 21st century, the CCP’s strategy was, as sometime party mouthpiece Global Times wrote in 2016, to engineer the “Lebanonization” of Taiwan — in other words, to create division and chaos in the island.
One of the main vehicles for this has been the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), a pro-mainland group created by Chang An-le, the onetime head of the Bamboo Union, one of the most powerful triads. Chang spent a long period in exile on the mainland to avoid crackdowns against crime on the island, where he built up close ties with party princelings, the sons of the senior CCP leadership. Chang claims that his party has regular contact with the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office and that he has “friends in the United Front,” the constellation of agencies and organizations that handles China’s propaganda and political warfare efforts.
When Chang returned to Taiwan in 2013, he brought with him a shift in strategy toward greater violence and intimidation. In April 2014, about 500 of his followers attempted to physically remove anti-Beijing protestors from the Taiwanese parliament. The CUPP regularly contributes manpower to violent protests organized by other groups.
There is also evidence of growing collaboration and coordination between pro-Beijing triads in Hong Kong and the CUPP in Taiwan. In early 2017, a group of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, Joshua Wong among them, were assaulted at the airport in Hong Kong before boarding a flight to Taiwan. Pro-Beijing gangsters were waiting for them at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and attempted to attack them. Chang’s son, Chang Wei, was arrested for his role in the altercations and was detained again in September the same year for physical assault during a protest at National Taiwan University over a pro-Beijing musical concert.
The CUPP has entered party politics in Taiwan not because its members think they have a shot at winning elections but rather to legitimize its existence as a supposedly separate group rather than a criminal organization. A secondary objective is to inject pro-Beijing memes in the political discourse and to promote politicians (often independents, with a few nationalists) who espouse its pro-unification ideology. Its principal role, however, is to sow discord; move money; coerce politicians, society, and the press; co-opt willing individuals; coordinate opportunistic gangsters-for-hire; and ultimately contribute to social instability and undermine Taiwan’s democracy and institutions.
Worryingly, such groups also have access to firearms, should they (or Beijing) decide to escalate their campaign of destabilization. In early May, Taiwanese control authorities seized a cache of 109 firearms and 12,378 rounds of ammunition, the largest in a decade. Members of the Bamboo Union — Chang’s original triad — involved in the attempt to bring the arsenal into Taiwan were detained in Singapore and returned to Taiwan to face trial.
Beijing did not invent the use of organized crime to further the interests of an expansionist state on its peripheries. The fact that countries such as Russia often use that instrument is proof enough that it works. The blurred line between criminal activity — gangsters’ bread and butter — and political agitation creates a jurisdictional nightmare for law enforcement and intelligence officials in the targeted societies while providing plausible deniability for the political forces working behind the scenes. The quick enrichment promised by involvement also ensures an endless supply of recruits among delinquents and dropouts.
As China becomes a global power, and as it seeks to expand its influence globally, triads that are already active in the Chinese diaspora — across Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America — could also begin to play a more active role, again to threaten political opponents and media that remain critical of Beijing.