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Chinese Organised Crime And Africa

The Globalisation Of The Chinese Triads and Gangs

Dr. Gary K. Busch

There is a very important dimension to the Chinese interaction with Africa which is often overlooked; the interaction of Chinese organised criminal structures with African states and their symbiotic relationship with the forces of the Chinese state and the military-industrial combines. Chinese organised criminal entities operate in virtually every African state, especially where there is a sea coast and a mining/extractive industry The Chinese are not the exclusive organised criminal structures in Africa but they have some unique niche markets. Chinese gangs control the export of wildlife-protected abalone (‘perlemoen’) which is a delicacy and an aphrodisiac in the internal Chinese market. The Chinese gangs are the major buyers and traders in illegal ivory, sharks’ fins and rhino tusks for the same market. They are major buyers of illegally-mined gold and diamonds through ‘artisanal miners’ whom they control and also through suborned miners working in legal mines.

Markets like abalone may seem small but, in South Africa alone, the Chinese annually take over 525 tons at an average street value of US $75 per kilo. That is almost US $40 million a year. What makes it far more worrying is that the payment to local suppliers of this abalone is made in deliveries of ‘tik’ (methamphetamine); a highly addictive crystallised form of ‘speed’. These are sold throughout the African townships, along with ‘mandrax’ (methaqualone). While the Chinese have the virtual monopoly on ’tik’ they must compete with Pakistanis and Indians in the mandrax business, Africa is a fertile ground for promoting drug addiction. The West Indian “Yardies” and the Nigerian ‘clans’ dominate the West and Central African heroin markets. The Colombians have a lock on the cocaine business across Africa and onwards through Africa to Europe. In Southern and Eastern Africa the Chinese have direct line to the Golden Triangle factories of the Mekong and control the heroin and morphine base business. The Italian Mafia families use the cash resources generated by all this business as a giant money laundry for their illicit wealth. All of these groups are active in the lottery. casino and shylocking businesses as well as in prostitution which inevitably accompanies drug addiction. However it is mainly the Chinese who are active in the illegal smuggling of their citizens abroad where they work as virtual slaves to the Snake Head trafficker who brought them.

These Chinese criminals aren’t private sector entrepreneurs seeking to earn a quick, if dishonest, buck. They are part of ancient and well organised criminal groups with a fierce internal discipline. There are two distinct types of Chinese organised criminal gangs. The most ancient and well-established are the Triads. Their origins stretch back to the fight against the Qing Dynasty in the 1760s when the Han Chinese fought against the reigning Manchus. They developed a set of rituals and practices top preserve their anonymity and to bind each member to the society; a lot like the Freemasons. They set up a triangle of power which reflected the Heavens, the Earth and Man. Things were explained as variations on the triangular theme. However, power was vertical as in a pyramid;. “the Shan Chu (Mountain Master) was the overall leader responsible for making the final decision on all matters. The Fu Shan Chu (Deputy Mountain Master), when appointed, was the deputy leader and directly assisted the leader. The Heung Chu (Incense Master) was responsible for all ceremonies of initiation and promotion. The Sin Fung (Vanguard) was responsible for recruitment, and organising and assisting in ceremonies. The Hung Kwan (Red Pole) was the ‘fighter’ rank of the society. The Pak Tsz Sin (White Paper Fan) was responsible for the general administration of the society. The Cho Hai (Straw Sandal) was the liaison officer for the society. The ‘49 Chai’ was the ordinary member usually recruited to follow a particular office-bearer.”[i]

Triads also use numeric codes to distinguish between ranks and positions within the gang. For example, "426" refers to "fighter" while "49" denotes a rank-and-file member. "489" refers to the "mountain master" while 438 is used for the "deputy mountain master", 415 for "white paper fan" and 432 for the "straw sandal". "25" refers to an undercover law enforcement agent or spy from another triad, and has become popularly used in Hong Kong as a slang for "traitor".[ii]

These triads (as well as local city-wide gangs) flourished across China. However, they were not immune from the conflicts and struggles which changed China’s political structure. The triads functioned well under Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT) and supported Chiang in his battle with the Chinese communists after 1945. Indeed, it was Chiang’s alliance with Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang which helped finance the KMT. The Green Gang controlled organised crime in Shanghai and, under Du Yuesheng, specialised in opium (which was supported by local warlords), gambling, and prostitution. Shanghai was the vice capital of the world at that time. “The Green Gang was often hired to break up union meetings and labour strikes, and was also involved in the Chinese Civil War. Carrying the name of the Society for Common Progress, it was responsible for the White Terror massacre of approximately 5,000 pro-Communist strikers in the City of Shanghai in April 1927, which was ordered by Nationalist leader General Chiang Kai-Shek, who granted Du Yuesheng the rank of General in the Nationalist army as a reward for conducting the massacre.”[iii]

When the KMT was driven south by the communists, many fled to Taiwan. Others were trapped in South China. Among them was the 997th Brigade of the KMT which settled in northern Burma. There they promoted the production of opium and began its export to the rest of the world, including the use of US aircraft sent in to deliver supplies to the 997th and with nothing to take back. This became a thriving business. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, notable warlords with fuzzy motivations arose in the Shan State.  It was often unclear whether they were ethno-nationalists or communists, drug lords, cronies of Rangoon, or a combination of these.  The most predominant such leaders were: General Li of the KMT (commanding groups in Burma from Thailand), Li Hsing Ho of the Rangoon-supported “home guard,” also known as the Ka Kwe Ye (KKY), Kyi Myint (Zhang Zhiming) of the CBP, and the infamous Khun Sa of the Shan United Army (SUA).[iv] The refining of this morphine base was undertaken by the Union Corse (the Corsican Mafia) operating in French Indo-China as ‘anti-communist’ allies of the French Colonial Government up until Dien Bien Phu. When the French and the Corsicans were driven out of Indo-China the drug business reverted to the triads and gangs who had stayed loyal to the KMT and who had taken up residence in Taiwan, along with local nationalist Burmese and Vietnamese. For a long time the drug business was dominated by the Taiwanese gangs (United Bamboo, Four Seas, Hung Mun , Hip Shing,  Hop Shing,  On Leong, Three Mountains, Tsung Tsin, Ying Ong,  Suey Sing). However, by 1954 power had passed from Taiwan to the relocated Triads on Hong Kong (including the KMT drug trade). This was largely because the KMT Government in Taipei was becoming increasingly concerned with the rise of Communist China and its attempts to impose a “One China” policy, especially in the UN.

This development in the conflict between the Chinese was one of the most important developments in the history of African politics. In the immediate post-war construction of the United Nations there was a provision for the Big Five nations to take a special seat at the UN Security Council. These Great Powers had a veto. They included the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. The Chinese place was taken by the Republic of China (the KMT state). Mainland, or Communist China, was denied a seat because it was filled by the ROC. By around 1954 the Peoples Republic of China (PRC)under Mao Tse Tung, decided it wanted to oust the ROC in the UN Security Council Under the sponsorship of the PRC the nations formed themselves into the ‘Non-Aligned’ Movement; a pressure group to get the other Great Powers not to veto the accession of the PRC to the UN. This was the scene every year for horse-trading. Each nation bartered its vote on China for aid, trade, concessions or just plain cash. Africa was particularly good at selling its vote. August or every year was the auction season, before the opening of the General Assembly in September, to barter for things they thought their country needed. It was a mutually-satisfactory ritual.

As it happens I was attending the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa in February 1967 as a delegate from the United Auto Workers and as a Board Member of the African-American Committee. At that time the US aircraft carrier, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was returning from Vietnam and pulled into Simons Town, South Africa for some repair/refuelling. The conference was indignant... They were upset that black U.S. servicemen would be subject to the indignities of apartheid if they visited South Africa. They formed a delegation to go to the Pentagon to complain. We were met by the Admiral in charge. I made my little speech about sending the wrong message to the world and of the risk of U.S. servicemen being victimised because of the colour of their skin. I asked how this visit would be seen in the rest of Africa. The Admiral looked me up and down, took note of his distinguished visitors and said”Listen kid. Those bastards have already had the vote on Red China this year. We don’t need them anymore. They need us; so screw them” That is what I reported to the meeting when I returned.

The Admiral was right. With the admission of Red China to the United Nations in 1971, no one needed Africa any more. Africa went on the back burner. The US passed the Korry Report which limited US activities to nine African nations. The Russians did the same, concentrating on six countries. The Chinese, who had had some success in Burundi threw its lot in with the black Rhodesians of ZANU in Mozambique, after being forced out of Angola and Congo-Brazzaville. The rest of Africa was left to the depredations of the French and the Portuguese. It took a lot of oil discoveries before Africa appeared on Western radar again.

In the mid-1950s the triads established themselves permanently in Hong Kong. There were several smaller triad organisations but they were overshadowed by the big four groups:  the Chiu-Chow/Hoklo Group (including subgroups Sun Yee On, Fuk Yee Hing, King Yee, Yee Kwan and  Tai Ho Choi); the 14-K Group (including subgroups  Hau, Tak, Ngai, Yee, 14K Tai, Huen, Baai Lo Wo and  Lee Kwan); the House of Wo (including subgroups Wo Shing Wo, Wo Hop To, Wo On Lok, Wo Shing Tong, Wo Yee Tong, Wo Shing Yee; and the Luen Group (including subgroups  Luen Ying Sh'e,  Luen Lok Tong, Luen Fei Ying, Luen To Ying).[v]

These four groups, and two of the larger Tongs from Taiwan, spread across the globe. They became involved in illegal immigration in North America and Europe; drugs and prostitution in Europe and Africa; and shylocking and extortion from overseas Chinese everywhere. Most importantly, as Red China began to expand its influence and operations around the globe, the Chinese triads were ready, willing and able to assist. They had ways of bringing people in to work on Chinese installations like railroads or ports. They could access cheap gold and cheap resources. That made them very attractive to the Chinese military companies spreading their wings across Africa’s resources.

This also made them valuable to the two major Chinese intelligence centres. There are several intelligence agencies in China. The official, government run intelligence agency is the Ministry of State Security (MSS) ‘Guojia Anquan Bu’ [Guoanbu]. The MSS is primarily created to perform economic espionage. The MSS' methods for economic espionage follow three models. The first is the recruitment of agents, especially scholars and scientists, in the PRC before they are sent abroad to purchase information. The second model uses Chinese firms to purchase overseas companies which own or have access to the desired technology. The third method is the direct purchase of technology through Chinese front companies. This third model was the most commonly used. The ability of the triads to extort money and extract information from the local communities made their efforts very valuable to the Guanbu.

The main thrust of Chinese intelligence is contained within the structure of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The intelligence agencies inside the Army are directly tied to the military-industrial corporations. These corporations at=re the economic backbone of China’s overseas investments.

After Mao's death in 1976, the new leadership encouraged the military plants to begin exploring civilian uses for their products and to engage in the broader liberalizing economy. The most nimble managers were free to exploit new markets for their goods. During the early 1980s, the PLA's share of the national budget declined, spurring it to look to other sources for cash, especially hard currency. The higher organizational levels of the PLA created trading companies like China Xinxing, China Poly and China Songhai to take advantage of the opening of China's economy to the international market.

They formed banks, holding companies and international trading companies like Everbright to market these goods worldwide. Now the PLA runs farms, factories, mines, hotels, brothels, paging and telephone companies and airlines, as well as major trading companies.

The number of military-run business exploded during the boom of the late 1980s. The "third line" factories opened branches in the coastal areas, earning increasingly high profits from the manufacture of civilian goods. Even the lowest levels of the PLA set up production units. In fact the PLA had a largely captive audience of Chinese who had never really had the chance to acquire personal goods produced in China before. In addition to their international arms sales, their production of consumer goods for the domestic market soared.

Many of the PLA companies have become firmly enmeshed in the global economy. Hong Kong is the PLA's favoured stock exchange because of its loose disclosure guidelines. China Poly Group has two listed companies: Continental Mariner Company Ltd. and Poly Investments Holdings Ltd. Both Continental Mariner and Poly Investments have a large number of subsidiary companies in mainland China, Hong Kong and tax havens like Liberia, the British Virgin Islands and Panama. China Carrie's listed company in Hong Kong is Hongkong Macau Holdings Ltd. China Carrie also owns HMH China Investments Ltd. on the Toronto Stock Exchange and HMH Gold Mining on the Australian Stock Exchange. 999 Enterprise Group, another company controlled by the PLA General Logistics Department, operates Sanjiu Pharmaceuticals Group, the largest pharmaceuticals manufacturer in China. 999 recently announced its plan to list soon on the Hong Kong exchange.

Smaller military enterprises, like the Songliao Automobile Company owned by the PLA Shenyang Military Region, have also listed in the domestic Chinese markets.
China Poly Group is a commercial arm of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Department. The PLA General Logistics Department operates China Xinxing. The PLA General Political Department owns and operates China Carrie. And the PLA Navy runs China Songhai.“

Military partners get the added security of knowing that the top "management" of many of the PLA companies are from the ranks of the "princelings," the children and relatives of senior Chinese Communist Party officials. These influential princelings assure that the business operations of the PLA will have the government connections that are so important in China's corrupt system. In the case of China Poly, chair Wang Jun and president He Ping act as brokers between the government and the military. Wang Jun is the eldest son of the late Vice-President Wang Zhen. He Ping is the son-in-law of the late Deng Xiaoping. Wang Jun's brother, Wang Bing, is the chair of the PLA Navy Helicopter Company. China Carrie's president is Ye Xuanning, the second son of late PLA Marshal Ye Jianying.

The co-operation between the triads and the Chinese military companies make it easier to disguise the political aspects of Chinese investment by masking it behind a front of intermediaries with no military connections. The triad structure allows for secrecy to prevail. The triads can, and do, make a lot of money on their own and are not financially dependent on the corporations which broaden their face in any transactions. Many of the triad ‘Dai-los’ have moved from Hong Kong to Beijing which emphasises their political clout.

The situation of the involvement of Chinese organised crime in Africa is becoming very serious. The world and his cousin are about to go to South Africa for the World Cup. They will be met by people engaged in many forms of organised crime. It appears that the South African police are not fully prepared for such an onslaught. Equally as important, the rise of Al-Qaida in West Africa and Central Africa is intimately involved with the drugs business and the smuggling of diamonds and gold. The expansion of the role of the triads serves to mask the expansion of Al-Qaida and the corruption of civil servants and the authorities by the triads makes it much easier for Al-Qaida to function as beneficiaries of this corruption.

It is hard to see a way in which Africa, and especially South Africa, can avoid serious problems in the immediate future.



[i] Peter Gastrow, Triad Societies and Chinese Organised Crime in South Africa, ISS No.48, 2001

[ii]Yiu Kong Chu,: The Triads as Business., Routledge 2000

[iii] Brian G. Martin, The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919-1937 

[iv] Andrew A. Merz, Coercian, Cash Crops and Culture, US Naval Academy 6/08

[v] HK Police

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