by Kenneth Champeon, Feb 1, 2004 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

You've seen them in the movies. Maybe you've seen them on the news. For all I know, you could be one of them.

They are the Triads, the Chinese secret societies or brotherhoods. And according to the back-cover blurb of Martin Booth's The Dragon Syndicates, they may "pose the greatest potential criminal threat the world has ever known." Forget the Mafia. Forget al-Qaeda. The future of crime may be Chinese.

The Triads are centuries old, but they seem to be on the ascendant. In part this is because China is coming apart at the seams: Booth estimates that some 300 million Chinese are unemployed as a result of the country's economic liberalization. As in Russia following the collapse of the USSR, the erosion of state services has meant that people now feel they have to fend for themselves. But in collectivist China this means forming mutual support groups, plenty of them above board, others not.

According to Booth, the Triads have been deeply involved in criminal enterprises of a rather predictable sort: prostitution, gambling, protection rackets, kidnapping, trafficking in people and narcotics. Their members have included such luminaries as Chiang Kai-shek and his predecessor Sun Yat-sen, as well as Zhou Enlai, future Prime Minister of Communist China and one of the most esteemed statesmen of the last century. Triads have reportedly put the screws on actors as prominent as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Rather like the famed Illuminati or the Opus Dei, their influence seems to be more than can ever be proven; in his novel Bangkok 8 Hong Kong-based novelist John Burdett suggests that one group of Triads, what Booth calls the Teochiu, essentially owns Bangkok.

Booth argues that the Triad threat has been underestimated, in part because the Chinese are the most law-abiding ethnic group wherever they have ended up: largely Southeast Asia, the Netherlands, Great Britain and its offshoots. (One in three residents of Vancouver, says Booth, are Celestials.) But the Triads are also highly secretive in their own right. They often operate under front organizations; unlike the Mafia, they avoid keeping permanent headquarters or even regular hangouts; they reward betrayal with death. Many Triads (Booth uses the word for both the societies and their members) own legitimate businesses and engage in philanthropy. No less than Deng Xiaoping hailed the criminals as "patriots"; even Mao Zedong, who rid China of much of the Triads' most lucrative business, was loath to alienate them completely. As for the Kuomintang, it became "in effect the political arm of the Triads," according to Booth. No one ever taught me that in high school.

Despite the Triads' secrecy, a number of successful sting operations have revealed elements of their methodology. Mafiosi talk about guys getting "whacked"; Triads prefer that they be "chopped", that is, attacked with meat cleavers - what Triad oaths call "a myriad of swords". Like the freemasons, the Triads employ secret hand signals and scripted questions to recognize each other. Their command structure is roughly pyramidal, with one leader at the top and several "49s", the Triads' infantrymen, at the bottom. Initiation rituals include aspects of Taoism and Buddhism, and they honor the Buddhist prohibition against taking life by using clothing not deriving from animals. (Apparently the Buddha would have no problem with dismembering a human with meat cleavers.) Triads also put great store by the baffling "science" of numerology; membership dues are often multiples of lucky numbers. Their favored deity is Kwan Ti, the god of war, whose identity derives from Lord Guan, one of the "oath brothers" appearing in the seminal Chinese novel Three Kingdoms. Triads are also, of course, devotees of the martial arts.

I believe it was in the film Goodfellas, or maybe it was Analyze This, that some once exalted Mafiosi find themselves busting parking meters open for some much-needed cash. Although the Triads may not have fallen so far, they have been involved in some dismal schemes: pickpocketing; counterfeiting (of films, music, software, money, credit cards, and travel documents); the production and sale of pornography and sex toys. Some Triads have even sold children into sex slavery, although it should be said that many Chinese consider pubescent girls to be fair game; to them, as indeed to most people in the world, arbitrary ages of consent make little sense.

Much of The Dragon Syndicates serves as a reminder of just how foreign Chinese culture remains to a Western reader. Preservation of face, for example, is so vital to the Chinese that they will sue, or harass, or kill anyone who threatens it. Also vital is the notion of guanxi, which might loosely be translated as "connections": in Chinese society, whom you know is paramount, which is why Westerners accustomed to a more meritocratic way of doing things often fail in China. Chinese validate agreements by burning them, replacing a paper trail with useless piles of ashes. Their denigration of women can be appalling, as can their indifference to human rights generally. They show a blithe disregard for the concept of intellectual property. The Triads in particular often seem willing to do "anything for a buck".

But what bucks there are. Hong Kong is usually thought to be the locus of Triad activity, and Booth relates some astonishing facts concerning this "Special Administrative Region". It has the busiest container port and the "highest density of luxury vehicles" in the world; "the new Hong Kong international airport at Chek Lap Kok [will be] the biggest civil-engineering project ever"; "Hong Kong now has the most highly developed public-transport system on earth". The predictable consequence of Chinese diligence wedded to British administration? In part, yes. But Booth offers another explanation: "It is estimated that 40 per cent of all Hong Kong businesses have Triad members amongst their directors and, at a minimum, 80 per cent of all commercial real estate has dirty money as part of its financing package." Hong Kong has been built upon a mountain of poppies, as has any regional city with comparable Triad influence.

Indeed The Dragon Syndicates doubles as an argument for the unsettling possibility that we live or shall soon live in a world dominated, at least economically, by the Chinese. And as Booth points out, this has partially been an accident deriving from China's overpopulation: "It is as if China has, with infinite Oriental patience, been leaking her people across the globe rather than sending out invading armies of soldiers, traders or missionaries." Of course China has done plenty of the latter as well, most notably in Tibet but also in its much vaunted maritime explorations in the 15th century, to which Booth dedicates a few paragraphs. But rather like the Americans, the Chinese have become so powerful largely through a combination of hard work and thrift. As Deng Xiaoping indelibly said, "To be rich is glorious."

I say that Chinese economic domination is unsettling because the Chinese have never shown a proclivity for democratic institutions, except perhaps in Taiwan and Hong Kong (and Tiananmen Square). The Triads are mini-autocracies, hierarchies that seem to be as natural to the Chinese as democratic town meetings are natural to New Englanders. Booth is refreshingly frank about this: "China is not and never has been a land where democracy could easily take root. There is too much in the national psyche militating against it." It's well to remember that Sun Yat-sen's Republic of China lasted about four years on the mainland before his successor Yuan Shih-k'ai declared himself emperor, and that Chiang Kai-shek styled himself Generalissimo, taking his inspiration from Mussolini.

The West has been no stranger to physical violence, but the forms it continues to take amongst the Chinese and their various Asian enemies is breathtaking. The squeamish will do well to pass over the passages in Booth's book in which people are "disemboweled and tied up in their own entrails", "caned to death, strangulated, decapitated or suspended in a cage by the neck until death", raped, bayoneted, castrated, maimed, dismembered. You get the picture, I hope.

Which brings us to the Rape of Nanking, whose casualty figures Booth grossly underestimates. Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking, places the death toll at more than 300,000; Booth says 40,000. And although The Dragon Syndicates is extremely well researched, it becomes increasingly speculative as its events become more contemporary. At one point Booth writes that a certain contention is "not without considerable supportive validity". Orwell would have enjoyed this circumlocution, especially the useless "not without" construction, a babble alarm par excellence. Why not just say that the contention is credible? "A Triad," writes Booth, "might in some instances be described as a highly educated and motivated criminal yuppie." This statement is not only a good instance of Booth debunking the mystique surrounding these glorified gangsters; it's also proof that Booth can turn a phrase. He writes of rocking "the political sampan", a Far Eastern boat. He says that corruption is as Chinese as "moon-cakes or joss-sticks". At times his wit is lethally subtle: with nary a blink or a cough, he notes that Chiang Kai-shek's "official government opium monopoly" was called the National Anti-Opium Bureau.

The end of the Cold War was widely hailed, and rightly so. But the honeymoon seems to be over, as moves toward capitalism are accompanied by a surge in organized crime. Khrushchev threatening to bury the West and Mao railing about paper tigers were one thing, and a terrifying thing. But according to Booth, Triad activities may include the sale of Russia's marvelously portable nuclear devices to very determined, very angry West-haters, the kind known to cheerfully sail airplanes into skyscrapers. Big money there.

Okay! That's my review! Sleep tight!

- The End -

Review of Martin Booth's The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of the Triads, Bantam, 2000.

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