The ongoing campaign against triads, or Chinese-style mafias, in the western
China metropolis of Chongqing is the largest such operation since 1949. Yet
what renders this so-called "anti-triad tornado" (fanhei fengbao) so
disturbing is not simply that close to 3,000 big-time criminals have been
nabbed by authorities, but that the Chongqing disaster has laid bare the full
extent of the collusion between organized crime on the one hand, and senior
officers in the police and judiciary on the other.
Even more shocking is the fact that what the local media calls "dark and evil
forces" have become so entrenched and prevalent in this megacity of 34 million
people that it required a directive from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
politburo standing committee - the highest level decision-making body in the
state - before sufficient law-enforcement resources could be mobilized to
combat the well-heeled - and well-connected - syndicates.
The scale of Chongqing's triad operations can be gleaned from the fact that 1.7
billion yuan (US$250 million) of ill-gotten gains have so far been uncovered
from 24 crime bosses. According to the official China News Service, triads have
infiltrated business sectors including finance, transport, construction and
engineering, entertainment, restaurants and retailing.
More than 200 mid-to-high-ranking officials in the Chongqing police and
judicial departments are under investigation for sheltering or otherwise
abetting the felons. These bad apples include the former head of the Chongqing
Judicial Bureau, Wen Qiang, and the former deputy head of the Chongqing Public
Security Bureau, Peng Changjian.
Wen, who is also a former police chief, has admitted to taking bribes and gifts
totaling nearly 100 million yuan. The corrupt cadre even threatened
interrogators that he would spill the beans on a number of more senior
officials if he were given the death sentence. "If you sentence me to death,"
he reportedly said. "I'll reveal everything - then everybody will die
While Wen might have been bluffing, there is now no denying that the triads
have been operating in Chongqing for more than two decades - and that they had,
for reasons that are coming to light, been tolerated by the municipality's top
party and government leaders. Most of the 24 triad chieftains started their
careers in Chongqing, and they have been expanding their empires in the
metropolis since the early 1990s.
These billionaire thugs include Li Qiang, a well-known business tycoon in
transportation and real estate who had been repeatedly appointed a delegate to
the Chongqing People's Congress. Another criminal, Xie Caiping, ran underground
casinos - a few of them in five-star downtown hotels - in Chongqing for years.
Since Chongqing gained the status of a municipality (with the same
"administrative ranking" as Beijing and Shanghai) in 1997, its party
secretaries have included such luminaries as He Guoqiang (now a member of the
politburo standing committee in charge of fighting corruption) and Wang Yang
(politburo member and party secretary of Guangdong).
Current party secretary, Bo Xilai, who is also a politburo member, has been in
charge of Chongqing for two years. It is well-nigh impossible that He, Wang and
Bo had not been knowledgeable about the triad problems in Chongqing. The
officials' complicit attitude raises the question, why did the authorities wait
until early summer before taking action?
While meeting a group of foreign reporters recently, Bo, a former minister of
commerce known for his flamboyant lifestyle, had some surprising things to say
about the triad scourge. The politburo member admitted that "it wasn't [sic] us
officials who wanted to take the initiative in fighting the triads; the 'dark
and evil' forces have put so much pressure on us that there is nothing we can
do [except combating them]." Bo added: "Chongqing residents often come to the
municipal government office, holding photographs that are full of bloody bodies
... The triads are chopping up people, just like butchers killing animals. It
On another occasion, Bo said that cadres "must absolutely not adopt a gentle
and tolerant stance toward triads". "While we may be gentle, the triads will
never be gentle," he said. "Permissiveness toward the minority means injustice
for the majority." Bo's extraordinary frank words suggest that there is a
well-entrenched practice among cadres to treat crime syndicates with kid
Hong Kong papers have reported that the Chongqing "anti-triad tornado" was made
possible only after President Hu Jintao had personally given approval to the
unprecedented crackdown. Bo indirectly confirmed this by saying late last month
that the "anti-triad operation was handled by the party central leadership" and
that it was "not a case of Chongqing trying to set a sensational example".
While Bo seems to be striking a delicate balance between praising Beijing's
leadership on the one hand and claiming credit for having done the right thing
on the other, neither the CCP authorities nor the gung-ho regional "warlord"
has been able to reassure the nation about the viability of China's legal
The CCP's apparently permissive attitude toward triads stands in stark contrast
to the "zero tolerance" strategies that the police, state-security agents and
the People's Armed Police have adopted toward other so-called "destabilizing
agents" in society. The latter include dissidents, activist lawyers as well as
non-governmental organization activists, in addition to alleged "splittists",
or pro-independence elements in Xinjiang and Tibet. For example, in the run-up
to the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China on October 1, several
liberal intellectuals were detained by police and subsequently given hefty
Their "crime" is nothing more than writing articles urging a faster pace of
political reform. So what underpins the authorities' surprising tolerance for
underground criminal gangs? It seems that a sizeable number of cadres consider
triads a useful tool for maintaining socio-political stability. For example,
police and state-security units in many cities and counties often employ triads
to do "dirty jobs".
Thus, gang members are used extensively in "land grab" cases - whereby corrupt
officials who are colluding with real-estate developers force residents of old
buildings (or farmers in the villages) to vacate their dwelling in return for
extremely low compensation. When the concerned residents or villagers refuse to
budge or hold demonstrations, they are often intimidated and beaten up by
triads. No wonder then that the former minister of public security, Tao Siju,
said in 1993 that "the triads are patriotic elements".
Irrespective of what individual party cadres may think of the "useful role" of
triads, the fact that Beijing had repeatedly procrastinated in tackling
organized crime has raised big questions about the CCP leadership's willingness
and ability to enforce the law. Even after the Chongqing triads became big news
in early summer, politburo standing committee member, Zhou Yongkang, who heads
the Central Commission on Political and Legal Affairs (CCPLA), waited until the
end of October before announcing a nationwide crackdown.
"We must get to the bottom of the task of wiping out all triad and evil
forces," Zhou said. "And we must nab all those [officials] who provide shelter
to the criminals." Characterizing the anti-triad operation as a minxin
gongcheng, or "an engineering project to warm the hearts of the
people", Zhou pledged that police departments and bureaus in every province and
city would pull out all the stops in exterminating the gangs.
China's increasingly vocal netizens, however, could not help criticizing the
cavalier attitude of Zhou and his colleagues. This was evident in many postings
in popular chatrooms such as that run by People's Daily Online. "Fighting
triads is the basic responsibility of every policeman," went one comment. "How
come Zhou called this an 'engineering project'?" Another angry netizen had this
to say about corrupt police officers sheltering triads: "Those who are charged
with fighting triads have themselves become triad members. Rice in the
granaries will naturally be depleted if you ask mice to guard them."
An allied issue is whether senior officials in Chongqing - and leading cadres
in units such as the CCPLA and the Ministry of Public Security - have to take
administrative or political responsibility for the triad scourge throughout the
country. After all, a centerpiece for political reform since the turn of the
century has been to enforce "administrative responsibility". This means that
cadres guilty of dereliction of duty or failing to measure up to minimal
standards of performance should be sacked, demoted or given warnings. In the
past four years, the authorities have investigated some 400,000 cases of civil
servants and cadres who are suspected of failing to fulfill administrative
responsibilities. A much-cited recent example is Zhang Heping, the party
secretary in charge of the No 2 Prison in Huhhot, Inner Mongolia. Zhang was
fired last month soon after four felons in the prison escaped after killing a
While the apparent success of Chongqing's anti-triad crusade might have lifted
Bo Xilai's political fortune, the eldest son of party elder Bo Yibo is careful
to be seen as giving all credit to Beijing. Chongqing authorities have also
emphasized that previous party secretaries and mayors of the municipality have
played a pivotal role in at least monitoring the activities of the gangs.
Apart from the age factor - Bo will be 63 by the time the 18th CCP Congress is
held in 2012 and thus may be deemed too old to be inducted into the politburo
standing committee - the high-profile princeling has continued to suffer from
his tendency to shoot from the hip. For example, his assertion which suggested
that Chongqing authorities were forced into taking action against the triads
has given the impression that the party boss has been lax and weak in the face
of serious law-and-order problems. In the final analysis, Bo - together with
his politburo colleagues - has to share the blame for the further erosion of
the ruling party's credibility.
DrWilly Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The
Jamestown Foundation. He has worked in senior editorial positions in
international media including Asiaweek newsmagazine, South China Morning Post,
and the Asia-Pacific Headquarters of CNN. He is the author of five books on
China, including the recently published Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era:
New Leaders, New Challenges. Lam is an Adjunct Professor of China studies at
Akita International University, Japan, and at the Chinese University of Hong