When clashes broke out last week in Mong Kok, a section of Hong Kong's Western Kowloon district known for its longstanding triad presence, Hong Kong's authorities were accused of colluding with organized crime rings to violently break up pro-democracy protests.
While the notion seems far-fetched, triad involvement in counter-protests against pro-democracy demonstrations raises another possibility: that of a red-black nexus between Mainland Chinese authorities and Hong Kong's criminal syndicates.
The clashes started Oct. 3 after groups of men assaulted protesters holding a pro-democracy sit-in. Fist fights resulted in head and other bodily injuries, and eight of the 19 people arrested for fighting had reputed triad connections. Legislators on the same day denounced the government. One lawmaker, James To Kun-Sun, accused the government of having "organized and orchestrated forces and even triad gangs in attempts to disperse citizens." The accusations were serious enough to draw a response from Hong Kong's assistant police commissioner, who categorically rejected allegations that police permitted triad members and thugs to assault and harass protestors.
The organized crime groups known as triads are an enduring feature of life in Hong Kong. The largest triad groups - Sun Yee On, 14K and Wo Shing Wo - are loose, cellular syndicates heavily involved both in locally-based activities such as gambling and prostitution and in transnational organized crime including drug trafficking and counterfeiting.
So would Hong Kong authorities really turn to organized crime to put down the protests? City authorities have dedicated decades of energy, political capital and funds to driving triad groups underground, and it's doubtful that Hong Kong's leadership would sacrifice these gains for some temporary muscle. Furthermore, an already unpopular Hong Kong government would risk an additional loss of legitimacy if putative connections to triad groups ever came to light.
It is worth remembering that organized crime elements are just part of a broader cross-section of Hong Kong that became increasingly exasperated with the protests' disruption of daily life. Business interests are especially displeased with the economic costs of the protests. Sharon Kwok, an expert on triad groups, speculates that embittered business owners may have hired triads to attack pro-democracy protests. While that theory has validity, the idea that Beijing backed triad violence should also be considered.
Speculation of secret links between Beijing and Hong Kong's criminal underworld is hardly new. In Beyond Social Capital: Triad Organized Crime in Hong Kong and China, T. Wing Lo argues that Chinese leaders in the 1990s collaborated with Sun Yee On - the largest Hong Kong-based triad - to uphold law and order throughout the handover of the territory from Britain. According to Lo, that triad also helped close the so-called yellow-bird scheme through which triads helped Tiananmen dissidents escape the Mainland, and it prevented purported pro-democracy Taiwanese gangs from infiltrating Hong Kong after the British withdrawal. In return, the narrative goes, Sun Yee On was allowed to profit massively from a pump-and-dump scheme on the Hong Kong stock market in late 1999. In one instance, Sun Yee On leaders allegedly inflated the value of a shell company by leaking news of its impending joint venture with China's Telecommunications Bureau, a subsidiary of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, a huge state-owned media conglomerate. Shortly after the news leaked, insiders dumped their shares, reaping large profits. More recently, questions remain about who was responsible for a vicious knife attack that left an outspoken newspaper editor hospitalized and bore the hallmarks of a triad act.
Despite their marked differences, Beijing and the triad syndicates share an interest in muzzling democracy in Hong Kong. Beijing wants to neutralize Hong Kong's special status and bring the city wholly under Mainland control. Triad syndicates, meanwhile, have profited from Hong Kong's integration with the Mainland and have expanded into neighboring Guangdong province in a big way. Provincial and local authorities in China have proved more corruptible than their counterparts in Hong Kong, where anti-corruption and organized crime ordinances have pruned the triads' power and their influence. As a result, since at least the early 1990s, the triads have moved many of their criminal enterprises from Hong Kong to Guangdong. It stands to reason that the syndicates would benefit from a more authoritarian and corruptible government in Hong Kong, their historic power base. Beijing may yet help ensure that.