The new order has provided opportunities for triad leaders to gain access to the highest levels of political power. "These scumbags have always been around the fringes of power," says a source familiar with triad intelligence gathering, "but now they are much closer to the centre."
The Chinese-language magazine Next has secured a confidential police report which says that the four main triad societies have about 30,000 members. This figure includes only those who have undergone the secretive initiation rites. The triads' outer circle was said to total about 120,000 - an extraordinarily high number in a population of just over six million.
Triad interests are extensive, which makes political protection such a necessity. They include protection rackets in the entertainment industry, control of hiring on building sites and loan-sharking. One racket exposed recently involved compelling all sellers of live chickens to rent cages from the gangs. Drug-running and organised prostitution operate alongside "respectable" ventures in the high-profile property and finance industries. Gang bosses control many companies listed on the stock exchange and try to separate their supposedly legal from illegal activities, but old habits die hard, as is seen in the way the gangs bring intimidation tactics into their "legitimate" business activities.
A leaked report from Hong Kong's anti-corruption commission suggested that half the reported crimes in Hong Kong were the work of triads. It also estimated that half of triad crimes were not reported. But the authorities are strangely complacent. Peter Lai, Secretary for Security, told legislators that "there is no evidence of a growing triad problem". He claimed "the ratio of triad involvement in overall reported crimes has remained stable at four to five per cent during the past five years".
The triads had a great deal of leeway before last year's handover of Hong Kong, but now seem to have penetrated even deeper into the territory's political and business life. According to police intelligence, at least two prominent members of the Chinese-appointed legislature are members of triad gangs, or have close ties to them. In the lower tiers of government, triad infiltration is worse: even the body monitoring police behaviour is suspected of harbouring one or more triad-connected members.
Men linked to organised crime are also prominent in the Chinese government advisory bodies established in Hong Kong, including those that selected the Chief Executive and the members of the provisional legislature.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that the triads are flourishing under Communist rule. China has been building ties with the gangs for more than a decade and made its desire for better relations public. In 1984, the lateDeng Xiaoping, paramount Chinese leader, said: "Hong Kong black societies [triads] are very powerful. They are even more powerful than their counterparts elsewhere. Of course, not all black societies are dark. There are many good guys among them." Shortly afterwards it was revealed that the Chinese government had entered into alliances with triads in overseas Chinese communities.
In 1993 Tao Siju, China's minister for public security, said some members of Hong Kong gangs were "patriotic citizens" and had a role to play in building the Chinese nation. He gave the example of a triad leader who had sent 800 of his members to protect a Chinese leader on an overseas visit.
Soon after, a leaked police report gave details of a meeting between China's top law enforcement official and the leaders of one of Hong Kong's biggest triad gangs, the Sun Yee On. The agenda remains unknown, but the Heung family, which dominates Sun Yee On, were awarded the first contract to establish a national cinema chain in China.
Some 50 triad societies are known to the police, but only 15 to 20 appear to be active. Other big gangs include Wo Sing Wo, the 14K and Wo On Lok, all of which have a long history of co-operation with the Chinese authorities. Although police intelligence on triads is claimed to be good, nearly all arrests involve low-ranking officers. The big gang leaders remain at liberty, and on good terms with Hong Kong's new masters.