Deng's gangsters

A new film portraying Shanghai's pre-war Godfathers could have been set in today's get-rich-quick China. Teresa Poole reports
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Guo Yongzhi lived in some style at his 36-room house in Zhecheng city, central China. There was a martial arts training hall, a ballroom, and a collection of precious jade and antiques, as well as special kennels for his guard dogs. If that was not enough to raise suspicions that Mr Guo was rather more than just the head of local county transport, there was the fact of his leather jackets - all 11 of them. According to last week's official Xinhua news agency report, policemen stumbled upon the extensive wardrobe of Zhecheng's top gangster when they came to arrest Mr Guo and 14 of his hoodlums.

Keeping the wheels of local transport rolling was not Mr Guo's main professional interest. He started his gang in the late Eighties, when he was the manager of a vehicle company, employing local thugs as the firm's "security guards". If the official report is to be believed, by the time he was ensconsed in the county transport bureau his "hooligans" were beating up anyone who failed to pay enough "protection money", or who simply annoyed him. At his mansion, a "waitress" was forced to become his mistress after threats that she would otherwise be "thrown out of the window", stated Xinhua.

After a 40-year lay-off, China's gangsters are back in business. The world of today's heishehui ("black societies") is not as glamorous as the pre-war Shanghai portrayed in Zhang Yimou's new film, Shanghai Triad, which opens in Britain this week. But it is just as brutal. Take one gang based in Yichang, Hubei province, whose 110 members led by their longtou or "dragon head", Li Faquan, made a living through robbery, murder, prostitution, gambling and drugs smuggling. The gang operated for six years in several provinces until being caught earlier this year. At least two of their victims were killed, eight very seriously injured, and more than 400,000 yuan (pounds 33,000) accumulated in "protection" money, stated the Worker's Daily. During an intra-gang power struggle between two top leaders, one had his feet and hands chopped off "and the tendons pulled out", the newspaper reported.

When the Communists came to power in 1949, the party put much emphasis on the drive against crime, particularly in relation to such capitalist vices as drugs, gambling and prostitution. In Shanghai, for instance, the city had been infiltrated since the mid-19th century by criminal societies with names like the Heaven and Earth League, the Elders and Brothers Society, and the Red Gang, who carved up the streets to operate their rackets. Chairman Mao soon put a stop to all that, and the Godfathers made a quick exit from China, if they had time.

These days, as state controls are weakened and the entrepreneurial spirit is given a free rein, it is not only the economy which is booming in China. In the "get rich quick" atmosphere of the world's fastest-changing society, criminal gangs throughout the country are rediscovering old rackets, and learning a few new tricks as well.

Like Mr Guo, now languishing in jail, many Chinese gangs find straightforward extortion can be the quickest path to riches. Then there are the bank robbers, the highway bandits, the kidnapping gangs, tomb-robbing gangs, VAT receipt-forging syndicates (liable to the death penalty under a law passed last month), and even "vampire" gangs, who bleed their victims and sell the product to local hospitals. They start young, too. In Xiangfan city, Hubei province, most of the 28-member Flying Tigers robbery gang were still at school. In Bazhou city, Hebei, police discovered the Nine Tigers gang of extortionists - all still teenagers. Crime syndicates from other Asian countries, particularly the Hong Kong triads, are also making inroads into the mainland.

Most of China is still safe for foreigners, but even for them there can be hazards. Police in Shanghai this year arrested a gang leader nicknamed The Dwarf whose henchmen invited foreigners and out-of-town Chinese visitors to certain hotels and restaurants, introduced them to prostitutes, and then burst into the hotel room and demanded blackmail money.

Chinese criminals have a wealth of opportunities now that there is a market for anything and everything. Driving in Peking this year, for instance, involves the novel challenge of avoiding the circular holes in the road caused by the theft of manhole covers. This summer, the city government admitted that about 4,300 covers were missing after being stolen at night by gangs of migrant workers who had discovered the value of scrap metal.

The construction boom has brought a new value to previously mundane objects. In Manjouli, Heilongjiangprovince, Wang Yide and his gang of five stole 78 lengths of railway track from station stores and sold them to a steel factory. Not even airplanes are spared; China Southern Airlines complained that in 1994, some 2,500 of its lifejackets had been stolen by passengers.

The breakdown in law and order in China is multi-faceted. Indeed, it is difficult nowadays to define who should be considered the modern-day equivalents of the Godfather figure in Shanghai Triad. China's biggest gangster of recent times, it could be argued, is Chen Xitong, the disgraced former Communist party chief of Peking, whose institutionalised corruption netted him unspecified tens of millions of dollars before he was exposed earlier this year. Mr Chen's case was linked to that of his colleague, Wang Baosen, a deputy major of the city who shot himself dead in April and has since been found guilty of diverting US$37m in bribes and public money. The various anti-corruption crackdowns have netted hundreds of corrupt officials across China, but the problem remains endemic. Often local police turn a blind eye or are themselves profiting from gangland crime.

Perhaps spurred on by the example of those who are illegally profiting within the system, China's criminal gangs have become more daring - and also more violent. A survey of cases in Peking found that the number of crimes where guns were used doubled in 1994 compared with the previous year. Liu Xianghong, 35, terrorised restaurants, clothes shops and electronic goods shops in the south of Peking into giving him protection money, until he was caught at the end of last year. He and his henchmen extorted millions of yuan from people who were beaten if they refused to pay.

In rural areas where jobs are in short supply, local gangs provide ready employment. The Mai family gang were farmers from a village near Foshan in the booming southern province of Guangdong. They turned to crime in May 1993, robbing money from taxi drivers, and later stealing the taxi cabs as well. With 13 members in total, the gang was well-stocked with guns, grenades and ammunition. On 17 September 1993, the Mai family broke into a car sales and repair shop, kidnapped the manager, and held him for a week until his family paid 300,000 yuan (pounds 25,000). A trail of car hijackings and kidnappings followed. Sideline activities included a loan- shark business and three gambling dens. In June this year, five of the family were sentenced to death.

In China today, there is a criminal dimension to any of the huge social and economic changes that are sweeping the country as it makes the sudden transition from central planning to rampant capitalism. The government applauds the economic growth, but appears helpless to check its uglier side even when it tries. Despite a stranglehold on the political system and an ubiquitous public security apparatus, the Chinese leadership is losing the battle against common crime and corruption. One of the flourishing business sectors in Peking, for example, is now home and personal security devices. Not that this is deterring the criminals.

China's army of up to 100 million migrant workers is blamed for more than half the crime in most big cities. Those who find jobs prosper; those who don't find other ways to raise funds. In the fast-growing coastal province of Fujian before Chinese New Year this year, a group of eight farmers from inland Sichuan province decided they needed money to go back home for the festival. They bought guns, knives and masks, and thieved their way back, robbing garages and shops and hurting 15 people. They were finally caught in June near their home village. Street crime in Guangzhou, the mecca for farmers seeking the bright lights of new enterprises, is now very serious. During two weeks in March, a big city hospital admitted 14 victims of robbery, two of whom died.

Trains and expressways are regularly targeted by more experienced criminals. At 2am one September night, a four-man gang armed with knives went through the first-class sleeper compartment on the Hangzhou to Wenling train and got away with 20,000 yuan in cash and a collection of jewellery. In Guangdong this year, a 16-man gang held up a cargo train and managed to steal 400,000 yuan worth of aluminium and zinc. In Anhui, highway bandit gangs in Fuyang district struck 19 times between December 1994 and March 1995, stealing 350,000 yuan and injuring 27 drivers, two of whom were paralysed.

Traditional Chinese crimes are coming back at an alarming rate. Drug- related cases prosecuted in Shanghai last year increased nearly threefold, and the amount of heroin trafficked through China is sharply up. Prostitution, both voluntary and forced, is rife; in a common example, a 22-man gang was caught in Guangdong a year ago and charged with tricking 76 rural girls to travel south to work in a "restaurant" that turned out to be a secure brothel from which they could not escape. Rape, especially by groups of men, is on many gangs' itinerary; in September, four armed men in Tiajin robbed a clothes shop, then a general store, and then broke into a restaurant where they raped two waitresses.

Kidnapping for ransom is also on the increase. In August 1994, three men kidnapped a nine-year-old boy from a village near Chongqing, in Sichuan, and demanded 40,000 yuan from his parents. Then they panicked, so they tied the child to a heavy rock and dumped him into the middle of a lake. Hong Kong businessmen have this year become a target for kidnappers in southern China, either for ransom or to settle business disputes, often with gruesome ends.

China's gangs are quick to grasp the opportunities thrown up by the country's economic revolution. In February this year, four members of an 80-strong receipt-forging gang were sentenced to death in Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, bordering Hong Kong. Counterfeit VAT receipts had been a large part of their business within days of the tax being introduced.

For older Chinese, who grew up in an era when one needed official permission just to travel to a neighbouring province, the darker side of China's economic transformation is very unsettling. "I would never want to turn the clock back," says one 62-year-old Peking man, "but crime is becoming a big problem." After 16 years of reform, almost everyone is better off. But no one warned the Chinese that when the rigid controls were eased, crime was bound to rise hand-in-hand with per capita GDP.