The Chinese Communist Party was once the target of government-deployed criminal gangs (known in China as triads) and secret societies who used brutal force and harassment to suppress enemies of the government. For some time, they’ve embraced the use of those same criminal gangs in sowing discord and quieting critics in both Hong Kong and Taiwan.
During the early and mid-20th century, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government used one underground gang in particular, the Green Gang, in a way ironically similar to how other triads are used by the Chinese Communist Party now.
As those Communists sought to gain a foothold and overthrow the Nationalist government during that time, the Green Gang – salt smugglers, opium dealers, and general criminal operatives with roots in Buddhist practices – often accepted compensation and protection from the Chiang government in exchange for harassing those Communist protestors. Under the leadership of Du Yuesheng, the Green Gang was known to break up union meetings, labor strikes, and serve as a pseudo-police force tamping down Communist sentiment.
In 1927, the Green Gang went so far as to, at the behest of the government, kill 5,000 pro-Communist strikers in what would come to be known as the White Terror. Later, Chiang Kai-shek would tab Du as a general in the National Revolutionary Army. But, the defeat of Chiang’s Kuomintang government by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War forced the flight of both the government and the Green Gang to Taiwan and Hong Kong, respectively.
And, as the tables upon which the rulers of mainland China sat switched from Chiang Kai-shek to the Chinese Communist Party, so did the role of commissioner of triads for party gain. The Kuomintang government held onto a foothold of power in Taiwan, while Hong Kong remained a British colony until 1997.
So, between approximately 1950 and today, the Chinese Communist Party has deployed gangs in Hong Kong and Taiwan in manners similar yet inverse to how those gangs were deployed against them under the Chiang government. As modern Hong Kong and Taiwan feel the grip of an authoritarian Communist government tightening, these gang tactics are steadily giving way to the even more frightening reality of official government control over the semi-independent islands.
Hong Kong was given back to China in 1997 in a transaction known simply as “the Handover.” However, unlike mainland China, the semi-autonomous state would be permitted to maintain its own currency, legal system, and cultural mores for a period of 50 years as a stipulation of the Handover.
At least, officially.
Prior to the Handover, the pro-Beijing triad groups in Hong Kong had primarily worked to siphon intel across the border, as they were permitted to travel between the British colony and mainland China with relative freedom. After the Handover, these gangs became increasingly used as a force by which to suppress anti-Beijing criticism without the Chinese Communist Party being officially involved.
Whether this meant threatening protestors, beating large crowds of people who were known to be critical of the Communist government, or murdering the most outspoken of the lot, it became clear to those who don’t subscribe to coincidence that the triads were working as an arm of the Beijing government.
The triad attacks included the brutal stabbing of radio host Albert Cheng, one of the most outspoken critics of the Communist government. Though he would survive, the details are grisly.
‘On any given morning here, you could turn on the radio and hear Albert Cheng lay into Beijing, the Hong Kong Government, the Hang Seng stock index, politicians, property tycoons, lawyers, newspaper editors -- in short, anything that matters in this former British colony.
Last Wednesday morning, two unidentified men attacked Mr. Cheng with carving knives as he arrived at work, inflicting deep slashing wounds on his arms, back and right leg that required six hours of surgery.’ (New York Times)
Cheng is far from alone as one of the Hong Kongers who has felt the wrath of Beijing, doled out with plausible deniability through the gangs that populate Hong Kong’s criminal underground.
‘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. (Foreign Policy)
In Taiwan, the situation isn’t much better. The Chinese government has threatened before to ‘Lebanonize’ the country, as it has had a multiparty system since approximately 1987. Beijing has threatened to respond to any true attempt at independence with force. They’ve deployed the triads there to stir up discord, with unrest being perceived as a sign that democratic systems don’t work, and communism would be justified as a new system of rule.
‘When (gang leader An-le) 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 Chinese Unification Promotion Party regularly contributes manpower to violent protests organized by other groups.’ (Foreign Policy)
Even more alarming is the perception that the gangs terrorizing critics of the CCP in Hong Kong and Taiwan are becoming more unified. A group of critics traveling from Hong Kong to Taiwan was attacked both before departing and upon arrival, suggesting a level of coordination between the groups of thugs.
These seedy, underground groups have ready access to weapons and could play an even greater role if the Chinese government chooses a more offensive posture in tightening their official grip on the semi-autonomous states of Taiwan and Hong Kong.
After all, China is making significant efforts to crack down on its mainland residents, and it’s not going to be satisfied until it does the same with residents of all of China, including the two regions with more historical freedoms than mainland Chinese. A recent vote to give the Chinese Beijing government greater control over part of a Hong Kong train station strikes some as a step further down a slippery slope, as inevitable as that step may have seemed.
The irony of the Chinese Communist Party’s role reversal from the targets of harassment by government-paid thugs to those paying the thugs to do their bidding is not lost. However, the irony doesn’t mask the fact that, in 2018, the use of such tactics cannot hide in the darkness provided by state-owned media.
The past use of triads by governments doesn’t justify its present existence, and the fates of Hong Kong and Taiwan as semi-free regions where free speech exists in some capacity could depend partly on whether the world pays enough attention to the Communist government’s gang of thugs, or chooses to continue looking in the other direction.