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Chinese Triad Society

T. Wing Lo, Sharon Ingrid Kwok


DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0115

In the 17th century, the Chinese triad society, also known as the Hung Mun, Tien Tei Wei (Heaven and Earth
Society), or San Hwo Hui (Three United Society), was founded to overthrow the Ching dynasty and restore the Ming
dynasty in China. Guided by a strong patriotic doctrine, the triad maintained a rigid central control over the behavior
and activities of its members, who regarded themselves as blood brothers and were expected to be loyal and
righteous. The early triad society still maintained its secret and cultural features, as reflected in its paraphernalia,
organizational structure, recruitment mechanism, initiation ceremony, oaths, rituals, secret codes, and communication
system. There were clear rules, codes of conduct, and chains of command. In the early 1900s, the Hung Mun
gradually disintegrated into many triad societies or gangs that operated independently from each other in different
parts of China. With the Chinese Communist Party in power in 1949, many triad members escaped to Hong Kong,
Macau, Taiwan, and Chinatowns in overseas countries together with thousands of refugees. In the beginning,
refugees from the same ethnic groups united themselves to protect their own interests against other ethnic groups in
a definite neighborhood. With the infiltration of triad elements, some of these groups were gradually transformed into
triad societies (or tongs in Chinatowns overseas) which used violence to protect them in a dominated territory. In
postwar decades, Hong Kong was the capital of triads, and it was suggested by a police commissioner that one in
every six of the 3 million Hong Kong inhabitants was a triad member. Because of their entrenched subculture and
cohesion, triads are regarded as effective in enforcing control in local territories, but it is argued that their hierarchical
structure is incompatible with the dynamic nature of many forms of transnational organized crime, such as human
smuggling. On the other hand, Chinas open door policy in the 1980s encouraged triads to shift their moneymaking
focus onto mainland China. In view of assistance provided by triads to smuggle out democratic leaders after the
Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 and Chinas resumption of sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997, China applied a united
front tactic to recruit Hong Kong triads to the communist camp. A label of patriotic triad was bestowed on triad
leaders, who were able to set foot in China. Triads experienced a process of mainlandization as a result of Chinas
economic growth and rising demand for limited goods and services. They network with Chinese officials and
enterprises and forge cooperative relationships with mainland criminal groups, trying to capitalize in the booming
underworld. They exchange crime techniques with the Chinese counterparts and import sex workers and dangerous
drugs from the mainland into Hong Kong. Today, a business approach has developed alongside the traditional triad
crime. Triads have been engaged in legitimate businesses and worked with entrepreneurs and professionals to make
financial gain in business markets. They are less structurally organized than their patriotic counterparts of the past,
and triad rituals have been simplified.

General Overviews
Early works on triad societies focused on history and rituals that were based on those used in Hung Mun in ancient
times. They described triad myths as the origin of patriotic culture. Among them, Schlegel 1866, Stanton 1900,
and Morgan 1960 are authoritative triad literature accepted in the court of Hong Kong. They are often referred to by
the police in prosecuting offenses related to triad membership. Chu 2000 provides a description of the development
of triad societies in Hong Kong. He argued that the emergence of triads in Hong Kong was not a response to local
needs, nor a purposive migration of triads from mainland China, but rather a consequence of influx of refugees from
mainland to Hong Kong during the postwar and postcommunist takeover decades. Chin 1990 found that ordinary
street crimes, such as vice, gambling, extortion, and drug dealing, are facilitated by the traditional triad hierarchical
structure. Through such structural and subcultural control, triad societies are able to compel their members to run
illicit activities. Liu 2001 also provides a comprehensive background of triad history, activities, political involvement,
relationships with Chinese officials, and operations in overseas markets. Lo and Kwok 2012examined the impact of
socioeconomic changes on triad organized crime in modern times. They contended that triads are bound by the same
codes of conduct and chains of command that ensure the formation of blood brothers with one solitary aspiration.
With such authority and manipulation amid the triad syndicate, this aspiration inevitably results in the running of illicit
activities in triad-controlled territories. As a result of socioeconomic changes, triads move from localization to
mainlandization, triad brotherhood to entrepreneurship, and cohesion to disorganization. Lo and Kwok
2013 suggested that as the intimacy between Hong Kong and China has grown deeper, an upsurge of cross-border
crime has emerged since the 1990s. Prosperity in China caused a process of mainlandization of triad activities
because of an ever-increasing demand for licit and illicit services in Chinese communities. The relationship between
triads, tongs, and transnational organized crime is examined.