Skip to content

The Resurgence of Organized Crime in China

The triad, or Chinese mafia, has made a comeback in mainland China after the country opened its doors to the outside world. Like many other things in China, organized crime is closely linked to the ruling Communist Party.

When the authorities tried to seize farmland for a state-owned power plant, a group of farmers who thought they were treated unfairly pitched tents and dug foxholes and trenches in an attempt to prevent the seizure. Hundreds of men armed with shotguns, clubs, and pipes fitted with sharp hooks attacked the farmers, killing six of them and seriously injuring as many as 100 others. The Washington Post reported the incident on June 15, 2005.[1]

What took place was unusual because the attackers appeared to be hired thugs rather than police. It was reported that the assailants were well prepared. They arrived before dawn in six white buses, and most of them were wearing hard hats and combat fatigues. They fired on the farmers with hunting shotguns and flare guns, and struck using metal pipes fitted with sharp hooks on the end. Some have suggested the assailants were organized crime groups who regularly work with local officials. In fact, although the farmers contacted the police, law enforcement officers did no arrive until long after the assailants were gone.

During an earlier attempt by assailants to drive the farmers from their land, the farmers captured one of the attackers. The man, Zhu Xiaorui, 23, said a man he met at the Beijing nightclub where he worked had recruited him. He said he was taken to the village, given a metal pipe, told to "teach a lesson" to the farmers, and was promised US$12 for the job.

The incident occurred on June 11, 2005, in a wheat-and peanut-farming village named Shengyou in Dingzhou City, Hebei Province.

Organized Crime an Increasing Problem in China

Rounds of Government Campaigns

According to a report from on March 11, 2006, a total of 313 mafia-style or organized crime gangs had been destroyed in the five previous months in Zhejiang Province, an economic powerhouse on China’s coast, in a campaign to crack down on organized crime. Hong Juping, Deputy Director of the Zhejiang Bureau of Public Security, said that since October 2005, 2,375 suspects had been detained in the campaign. The police have dealt with 1,388 cases, seized 26 weapons and confiscated 23.05 million yuan (US$2.84 million) in the operation, according to Hong.[2]

Zhejiang Province is not alone. In late 2005, China launched a nationwide campaign against underground organized crime syndicates.

In late February 2006, Luo Gan, a Politburo member in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and a state councilor, announced the onset of another round of the campaign. Unlike previous ones, this new round targets organized crime groups and their insiders in the government. The purpose is to prevent organized crime syndicates from infiltrating the government.[3]{mospagebreak}

Underground Organized Crime in China

As of November 2005, underground criminal organizations owned and operated 70 percent of entertainment businesses with an annual revenue of over 100 billion yuan (US$12.5 billion). For example, in Guangdong Province, over 95 percent of the over 123,000 nightclubs, karaoke, saunas and bars are controlled by underground criminal organizations.

Underground criminal organizations control 30 percent of highways in counties, towns and villages; over 60 percent of construction projects in small and medium cities; and over 60 percent of small coalmines; 90 percent of coalmines of 200,000 metric ton annual output are controlled by underground criminal organizations in collusion with local authorities.

Over 2,130 officials were investigated and reprimanded for aiding and abetting underground criminals.

Over 1,520 local officials were arrested and sentenced for aiding and abetting underground criminals.

As of October 2005, 1,920 companies, 2,180 casinos, 377 farmers markets, 117 construction projects and 250 coalmines owned by underground criminal organizations had been shut down.

As of 2005, 2,120 underground criminal organizations were destroyed and dissolved, and over 70,000 ringleaders were arrested and sentenced.

Source: Cheng Ming Monthly, December 2005 issue. First published on November 1, 1977, in Hong Kong, Cheng Ming is a magazine that provides exclusive reports and in-depth analysis on the political situations in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Red Hats

According to Chinese media reports on March 12, 2006, Mr. Zhu Entao, Honorary Vice-Chairman of Interpol and former assistant to China’s Minister of Public Security, warned that organized crime syndicates are increasingly wearing "red hats," meaning more and more syndicate members are government officials.[4]

Zhu’s statement underlines an alarming trend. As shown in court proceedings, government officials acting as these red hats have been rampant. For example, in the 2005 case of the Chen Kai triad, the red hats included 76 government insiders—from high-level officials to local police. In the 2004 case of Chen Yi in Shenzhen, Chen, as chairman of his company, was also the official advisor to the Guandong provincial government and won the title of one of the top ten national champions in eliminating rural poverty.{mospagebreak}

Underground Criminal Organizations

The characteristics of organized crime syndicates in China include territorial control, wealth, infiltration of the government for political protection, and low turnover rate.

Based on official statistics, there are over 20,000 organized crime syndicates in China with over 15 millions members.[5]

According to a statement issued by the China Ministry of Public Security at a press conference held on February 14, 2006, 10,034 policemen were suspended in the past nine years because of their affiliation with organized crime.[6]

Organized crime syndicates have been collaborating with the police in suppressing political dissidents. Recent examples including Chinese weiquan[7] activist Zhao Xin who was beaten up by seven unidentified mobsters during a family vacation, Lu Banglie who was dragged out of his car and severely attacked when he accompanied a U.K. Guardian reporter to investigate government abuse in Guangzhou Taishi Village, and attorney Tang Jiling who was followed and assaulted after visiting another rights activist.

Well-known Chinese economist Ms. He Qinglian has summarized the behavior of organized crime in China: First, local officials have hired thugs to assist in official duties in matters related to commerce, tax and public security; second, Party officials are members of the organized crime syndicate; and third, the authorities have walked hand-in-hand with organized crime syndicates in business joint ventures.[8]

Ming Xia, professor in the Department of Politics at New York University, in his ongoing research project on organized crime in China, observed that Party officials at provincial and central levels are in control of state resources and are not involved in organized crime. Yet, Professor Xia stated that it is local officials at the municipal, county, and township levels among whom organized crime is the most rampant. It is not surprising that the Chinese communist regime, which rose to power through violence, is finding organized crime more helpful than democracy.

Rich Soil for Underworld Prosperity

High Crime and Disorder in China{mospagebreak}

Since the economic reform in 1978, the Chinese communist government has been confronted by two most serious challenges: corruption and crime. These are what have led to the underworld’s quick development. According to Professor Xia, for the past three decades, crime in China has grown much faster than China’s economic development. From 1973 to 2002, the annual rate of increase in criminal cases averaged 17 percent. In 1974, reported crime cases passed the benchmark of half a million, a record high compared to the previous 20 years. In less than 10 years, this number soon approached one million, coming close to 2.5 million in 1991, passing 3.5 million in 2000, and reaching 4.4 million in 2001. Official authorities have reported that the number of destroyed criminal groups swelled from 30,000 in 1986 to 150,000 in 1994, while arrested members also increased from 114,000 to 570,000. From 1992 to 1999, the public security agencies nationwide destroyed more than a million criminal groups with members totaling 3.76 million. In the first half of 2005, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security reported a conservative figure of 2.13 million criminal cases. Professor Ming Xia concluded that Chinese society has entered a stage of high crime and disorder.

Source: "Corruption and Organized Crime" by MING XIA, except for data from 2005, which was estimated based on a report by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security.


So-called "mafia capitalism" has increasingly become a large part of the Chinese economy. The economic activities controlled by the criminal underworld—the so-called "black economy"—have constituted a large portion of China’s economic growth, in addition to the gray income such as bribes and embezzlement. One scholar affiliated with the Ministry of Public Security estimated that in the late 1990s, the amount of money spent every year on drugs may have been as high as 100 billion yuan (US$12.5 billion). It was also estimated that the sex industry generated revenue of at least 500 billion yuan (US$6.25 billion) per year. For many places, "Prostitution promotes prosperity" (PPP) has been an open maxim.

For example, in 1998, the "sweeping out sex industry" campaign (sao huang) in Shenzhen drove out thousands of prostitutes and bar girls. Within a few days of their departure, at least 10 billion yuan (US$1.25 billion) in savings deposits was removed from local financial institutions. This gave an economic boon to the surrounding cities and forced the Shenzhen municipal government to temper its campaign. Due to the activity of such criminal groups, every year smuggling alone causes the nation to lose more than 30 billion yuan (US$3.75 billion); money laundering through underground private banks has resulted in 200 billion yuan (US$25 billion) being transferred out of the country. As for piracy, it is generating even more income.

Social Uncertainties and Moral Vacuum

Organized crime is much more than an isolated criminal phenomenon. There are interdependent links between the political, socio-economic, criminal justice, and legal domains. "Corruption," which is defined broadly as "the abuse of public power for private gain," usually goes hand-in-hand with organized crime. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (General Assembly resolution 55/25, annex I) defines an organized criminal group as "a structured group, committing serious crimes for profit."[9] That very broad definition was favored over the listing of the most common types of organized crime such as trafficking in drugs, arms, persons, stolen cars, or protected species, and terrorism.

During Mao Zedong’s era, other than the organized crimes committed by the Chinese Communist Party itself in its quest for power, there was no other form of underground organized crime because the Communist Party and its ideology largely controlled the society. Indeed, China officially announced that there were neither sexually transmitted diseases nor drug problems in China in 1964. One of the reasons was that under Mao’s rule, people in the cities were put in a danwai (work unit); and in the rural areas, they were put in communes. Unless someone got permission, no one had the freedom to relocate to any other places in China, which in turn limited the opportunity for committing any organized crime.{mospagebreak}

At that time, anything not expressly permitted was forbidden, which is the opposite of Western law (in keeping with the Roman tradition) in which those things not expressly forbidden are permitted. In Chinese society, people’s acts are either legal (hefa), illegal (feifa), or somewhere in between-which is referred to as "not in the law" (weifa). Weifa refers particularly to situations where the law is intentionally ambiguous. The three terms have established three sets of behavior; yet, since the economic reform, the official definitions of being legal, illegal, and "not in the law" have constantly changed.

The economic reforms inspired by Deng Xiaoping opened the floodgates for a market economy. Testing the water as reform goes along not only allows but also encourages behavior that in the past was "not in the law." In order to create an impression that the old political rulings were still suitable for the capitalist market economic, Deng kept using socialism in describing the economic reform, indicating that the old political and social rules could still be used without much change.

Feifa (illegal) behavior was forbidden. But, because of the ongoing structural reforms, many things that were forbidden could in any given moment easily become hefa (legal). For example, city dwellers’ houses were allotted to them as individuals. However, they sublet or even sold these houses they lived in even though, in theory, they still belonged to their work units. Things like this occurred but were widely tolerated although they were not strictly legal, or hefa. Thus, throughout the whole society, changes in what actually happened preceded changes in the rules. Regulations were, and still are, drafted on the basis of concrete cases; regulators try to see how things work first and then regulate based on the actual occurrences.

Despite all the operational changes without a regulatory base, the general legal culture has moved toward the Roman concept-everything not expressly forbidden is permitted. There is general confusion between what is legal and what is illegal. There is an even larger confusion about what is morally right and morally wrong, as both Confucian and communist values have fallen apart and new values have not been established in their place. Many social actions—arguably most of them—in China are still weifa, as much social behavior was and still is in a no-man’s land.

In addition to the above-mentioned lack of definite laws and moral standards, there is a lack of transparency in the Chinese system. The communist regime doesn’t want to show its dirty linen, and it is afraid of the domestic political impact of this complex situation.

In an article in Asia Times, Francesco Sisci pointed out, "These difficulties take place while ongoing structural change moves the goalposts every few months, and while the burgeoning middle class would often rather side with the triads than with the police; thus the central government, certain that it must back the middle class for national development, tries to rein in some police action. In this situation the police, feeling left out and wanting part of the action, get into bed with the triads. Furthermore, the successful triads shed their criminal activities and turn 100 percent legal. In other words, it is a jungle."[10]{mospagebreak}

Ambiguous Law

China is ill-prepared to deal with the underworld of organized crime. Even though the word "underworld" (hei she hui) has been widely used in reporting the increasingly rampant organized crime, the judicial system does not even have a clear definition of it.

Is "underworld" a legal term? Some legal experts in China hold that the term is not a legal concept but a sociological concept. It is for this reason that it is impossible to interpret the term in the statutes. Penal codes of countries outside China define crimes such as assault, torts, homicide, and robbery, but no such crime as "underworld" exists.

As underground organized crime emerged and became rampant along with the economic growth in China, the term "organizations in the nature of a criminal syndicate" first appeared in Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China adopted in March 1997.

Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China adopted in 1977

Article 294

Whoever forms, leads or takes an active part in organizations in the nature of a criminal syndicate to commit organized illegal or criminal acts through violence, threat or other means, such as lording it over the people in an area, perpetrating outrages, riding roughshod over or cruelly injuring or killing people, thus seriously disrupting the economic order and people’s daily activities, shall be sentenced to a fixed-term of imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than 10 years; other participants shall be sentenced to a fixed- term of imprisonment of not more than three years, criminal detention, public surveillance or deprivation of political rights.

Another issue in dispute is how to define "organizations in the nature of criminal syndicates" in relation to the role of government official who may provide a "black umbrella" (illegal protection).

In 2000, when the authorities launched the first campaign against underworld criminal organizations, the Chinese Supreme Court issued an interpretation of Article 294 stating that the elements of the "organizations in the nature of criminal syndicates" should be defined as a tightly controlled structure with economic gains as its goal, government officials providing illegal protection, and violent disruptive capability.

However, confusion ensued particularly about the black umbrella (government officials providing illegal protection). Numerous cases were dismissed in court due to lack of evidence of a black umbrella.{mospagebreak}

In January 2001, the People’s Congress of China issued an interpretation of the legislation: the black umbrella is not required to find that an "organization is in the nature of a criminal syndicate."

In reality, an organization can hardly become an "organization in the nature of a criminal syndicate" without aid and assistance from government officials.

The above interpretation was passed in April 2002 at the 27th session of the People’s Congress of China.

Involvement of Government Officials and Police

In a large number of mafia-type organizations, government officers are often deeply involved in and benefit from the mafia-type business defined as the "red hats" of the underworld. They are well entrenched in the local political structure, particularly in law enforcement agencies, and thus are well protected by corrupt public officials. Below are several examples:

Zhang Wei is from Wenling, Zhejiang Province. Not only was he the boss of his criminal organization, but he also held eight public official titles in several provinces and municipalities:

Vice Chairman of the People’s Political Consultative Conference of Yidu City, Hubei Province

Member of the Municipal Youth League Committee of Taizhou City

Honorary President of a newspaper in Zhejiang Province

Vice President of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Taizhou City

Legal Representative and Chairman of the East Sea Group in Zhejiang Province

Legal Representative and Manager of the Dongsheng Corporation in Shanghai

Legal Representative and General Manager of Wenling Hengji lndustrial Corporation

Legal Representative and General Manager of Taizhou New Century Decoration Co. Ltd.

He obtained the first four titles by bribing public officials, and those titles served him well. He was found to have connections with officials in key positions, including the mayor and the police chief. Of the 67 public officials having close ties with him, 42 were in government or Party offices, 15 were in the judiciary, and 10 were in banking. For this reason his organization was called the "Red-Black Gang," and this is indeed an accurate description.{mospagebreak}

Liang Xudong, head of the largest criminal organization in Jilin Province, was a police officer and also had ties with over 30 government and Party officials. Of these connections, there were political appointees as well as those holding offices in the Public Security Bureau. Liang Xudong had access to 35 public officials; his network included 12 department heads in the government, 10 police officers, five public procurators, and four judges. It was under the protection of these public officials that Liang Xudong and his gang developed into a powerful force in that region, in Jilin’s Helong City.

Gu Decheng and his gang had grown to a criminal organization with considerable notoriety when Gu himself was elected a member of the city’s People’s Political Consultative Conference and representative of the city’s People’s Congress.

Liu Yong of Liaoning Province was both a gang boss and a well-known public figure. To outsiders, he was a member of Shenyang City’s People’s Congress, in addition to being president of the Shenyang Jiayang Group, and year after year his company was granted the title of Advanced Enterprise by the municipal government. Of the 16 key members of this gang, three were police officers.

Zhou Shounan was head of a criminal group in Baise, Guangxi Province. The public knew him as general manager of the entertainment department of the Baise Hotel while in the underground he led a gang, the Hongxing Society, which controlled the gambling business in the city. When his criminal activities were brought to light, the involvement of several key officials became known, including the former chief of the city police, Nong Jiayi, and the police chief in office, Li Hongzhuan. Also involved were the political commissar of the police department Ma Sike, deputy police chief Huang Zhengxian, former commander of the public security team within the police department Liang Xincheng, and former deputy chief of the prefecture police department Tan Xueren.

People have been shocked by a criminal organization in Pingdingshan City, Henan Province. This organization had 11 members. Among them, six were members of a village committee, one was a probationary member of the Chinese Communist Party, and three were candidates for Party membership. In eight years they committed over 300 armed robberies targeted at private coal mine owners, victimized more than 120 innocent people of whom six were murdered, and got away with a total of one and a half million yuan (US$1.9 million). The fact that these people are able to hold dual roles-one in public and one in the underground-is more alarming than those criminals relying exclusively on the bribery of officials.{mospagebreak}

More disturbing is the fact that gangsters have infiltrated county- and municipal-level governing bodies. They pick their "surrogates" from other officials, even playing a role in assigning county and municipal administrative positions. In this way, social establishments controlled by corrupt officials have become a tool for organized criminals to prey upon their communities. In the worst-case scenario, the "good side" and the "bad side" merge. Then the public officials who rule society, particularly those in law enforcement, are those who collaborate with organized crime, which in effect gains control of society.

Organized Crime and the Chinese Communist Party

If the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had managed to completely wipe out prostitution, drugs, triads, and other organized crime in China before the 1980s, why has it allowed these crimes to reemerge and grow rampant in the underworld today? Where is the CCP going to lead China?

Minxin Pei, director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that the CCP has turned into a neo-Leninist regime and that China’s future will be decay, not democracy. In his recent article in Foreign Policy (March/April 2006), Pei wrote, "Behind the glowing headlines are fundamental frailties rooted in the Chinese neo-Leninist state. Unlike Maoism, neo-Leninism blends one-party rule and state control of key sectors of the economy with partial market reforms and an end to self-imposed isolation from the world economy. The Maoist state preached egalitarianism and relied on the loyalty of workers and peasants. The neo-Leninist state practices elitism, draws its support from technocrats, the military, and the police, and co-opts new social elites (professionals and private entrepreneurs) and foreign capital—all vilified under Maoism."

Chinese scholar Yang Guang recently analyzed a series of changes in the CCP political ecology that could explain the reemergence of organized crime ("Political Decay in Present China," Contemporary China Study, third issue, 2005). Those gradual changes included: 1) The communist ideology has been weakened and has become ineffective. 2) The regime’s cohesive force is lax; the traditional bureaucratic power structure has become unbalanced and obstructive. 3) The relationship between the populace and the group holding power has deteriorated. 4) Alliances of common interest between regional bureaucrats and business have grown stronger. 5) Official authority has weakened while unofficial authority has prospered. 6) Conflicts between the low-level local authorities and civilians have developed into complete opposition.

In such a political environment, the get-rich-first class, the influential families, and the leaders of the underworld have gained more and more political influence and energy by forming alliances with bureaucrats or their family members. They even unofficially "subcontracted" some key public authority such as law enforcement. As a result, the totalitarian power structure of the CCP is facing unprecedented internal erosion and external resistance.{mospagebreak}

Political decay has accompanied the open and reform process in China. Even though the open and reform policy is meant to make China rich and strong, it comes with a constraining condition attached—the CCP’s power and monopoly must be preserved. The CCP has not allowed independent political parties, not allowed political debates or competition, not allowed free media, not allowed independent civil organizations, and not allowed freedom of belief and religion. In the absence of the basic ingredients for a civil society, the CCP’s absolute power has inevitably led to absolute corruption that has then become the rich soil for the growth of organized crime.

Beijing Spring magazine’s chief editor, Hu Ping, recently warned people that the CCP itself is in the process of becoming an underworld organization. "I once wrote an article to discuss the CCP becoming an underworld organization. It referred to the facts that the communist government disrespected the minimal law and procedures when it hired hoodlums or directed the police to physically attack human right activists and to threaten their lives in an underworld manner. There is yet another manifestation: the CCP itself acts more and more like an underworld organization," Hu wrote in March.[11]

In an underworld criminal organization, it is a ritual to ask new members to commit a crime; it excludes anyone clean. The CCP’s corrupt culture is similar. Hu Ping used two recent examples to illustrate the similarity. One example involves Huang Jingao, the former Party secretary of Lianjiang County, Fujian Province. Huang did not like the corruption inside the government. He tried to expose other officials’ corruption, but instead, in the end, he himself was charged with corruption. Another example involves a corruption case in Qianwei County, Sichuan Province. The county Party secretary, Tian Yufei, was tried in court for taking bribes and possessing a huge amount of wealth from unidentifiable sources. Yang Guoyou, the former county magistrate, was one of the co-defendants. Yang explained to the court why he took bribes: He said that he was protecting his position. If he had not taken bribes, he would have had to face retaliation from Party secretary Tian Yufei; it’s the unspoken rule in the CCP regime that they commit crimes together.

Hu Ping further commented that the CCP regime had become completely corrupt. It’s no longer simply totalitarian. In a pure totalitarian dictatorship government, most of the bureaucrats act according to the laws and rules that are written on paper. The bureaucrats just work for their salary. If the top dictator one day decides to reform and change the laws, the bureaucrats can simply follow without worry of reprisal. However, in a government that is completely corrupt, the bureaucrats are themselves guilty of breaking the law and taking bribes. Even if the top dictator wants to reform, it will not work because all the bureaucrats in the whole system will resist.{mospagebreak}

Hu Ping is not alone in his pessimism about the CCP’s reform. Minxin Pei certainly shared a similar view when he wrote in his recent article, "To most Western observers, China’s economic success obscures the predatory characteristics of its neo-Leninist state. But Beijing’s brand of authoritarian politics is spawning a dangerous mix of crony capitalism, rampant corruption, and widening inequality. Dreams that the country’s economic liberalization will someday lead to political reform remain distant. Indeed, if current trends continue, China’s political system is more likely to experience decay than democracy."

Leon Chao is an expert on China issues.

[1] Washington Post, June 14, 2005 article/2005/06/14/AR2005061401542_pf.html
[2] Xinhua News Agency, March 11, 2006 http://www. chinanews. cn//news/2005/2006-03-11 /20051.html
[3] Xinhua News Agency, Feb. 22, 2006 http:// politics. people. com. cn/GB/1 024/4132588.html
[4] China Daily, March 13, 2006 http://www.chinadaily. 541297.htm
[5] The Epoch Times, Dec. 12, 2005. http://www.epochtimes. com/gb/5/12/17/n 1157207.htm
[6] Hot topics, Feb. 13-Feb. 19, 2006 http://www.khbd. com cn/bbs/viewthread.php?tid=57907&extra=page% 3D1&page=2
[7] "Weiquan" is the Chinese word for rights movement.
[8] VOA News, Feb. 16, 2006 chinese/archive/2006-02/w2006-02-16-voa70. cfm
[9] The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the protocols thereto are available at cicp convention.html
[10] "The Triads and Emerging Legality in China" by Francesco Sisci, Asia Times, April 18, 2002