Wong Man-fong, a former deputy secretary-general of the New China News Agency (NCNA) in Hong Kong, China's de facto embassy, told an academic forum over the weekend that he had held meetings "to befriend" triad leaders before the signing of the 1994 agreement with Britain for the transfer of sovereignty. He is quoted as saying: "I told them that what the administration wanted was a peaceful return and that they could not attempt to do anything to upset Hong Kong's prosperity and stability."
In return China pledged to turn a blind eye to triad activities, which include drug running, loan sharking, protection rackets and running prostitution rings. Mr Wong did not say so, but it is reliably understood that during his long period as a Xinhua official from 1949 to 1992 he became the main link man between the Chinese government and the triads, holding regular meetings with triad leaders in the border town of Shenzhen.
Mr Wong's comments provide the first real confirmation of the reasons behind some extraordinary comments by Chinese leaders in recent years. In 1984, the paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, said - referring to triads, "there are many good guys among them." China's security minister described the triads as containing "patriotic elements" and said they helped provide protection for the overseas visit of a senior Chinese leader.
Mr Wong, one of the few former senior Chinese officials in Hong Kong to speak in public about his past activities, was poised to publish a full account of China's links with the triads in 1994, but was thwarted after pressure was brought to bear by Chinese officials who got wind of his plans.
One major problem for China was to secure the support of the powerful Sun Yee On gang which had been close to anti-Communist Taiwan. However, in late 1984, Xu Jiatun, the head of the NCNA, acting on Mr Wong's advice, invited the so- called "dragon heads" or bosses of the Sun Yee On to meetings at which something akin to a peace pact was signed. The other two big gangs, the 14K and Wo On Lok (better-known as Shui Fong) triads were more co-operative from the start, appreciating the benefits of association with China in return for non-interference from Peking.
Mr Wong did not say so, but the current outbreak of triad warfare in the neighbouring colony of Macau, is precisely the sort of thing which China was keen to avoid in Hong Kong. Ironically, political relations with Macau's Portuguese rulers have been far better than with Hong Kong's British rulers, but the handover of power in Macau is being seriously undermined by a series of triad-linked assassinations in broad daylight.
"I made the point of warning them [the triad leaders] that the Communist Party was not someone they wanted to mess with," said Mr Wong.
About 30,000 triad members are said to be operating in Hong Kong. The triads originated as patriotic anti-Manchu societies opposed to the rule over China by the Manchurian Qing dynasty in the 18th century. The triads, known in Chinese, as "black societies", quickly degenerated into criminality.
Quiet hero, page 11