China braced for new outbreak of mafia mayhem

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As China's census-takers go door to door hunting 1.3 billion people, one group may prove as elusive as the millions of "illegal" children hidden from the dreaded enforcers of the "one child" policy. Some estimate there are a million members of criminal gangs in China, well-armed and well-protected by officials, threatening to bring to the country the mafia mayhem of the former Soviet Union.

As China's census-takers go door to door hunting 1.3 billion people, one group may prove as elusive as the millions of "illegal" children hidden from the dreaded enforcers of the "one child" policy. Some estimate there are a million members of criminal gangs in China, well-armed and well-protected by officials, threatening to bring to the country the mafia mayhem of the former Soviet Union.

Known as triads in Hong Kong and "black societies" on the mainland, gangs were rife in China before the communist takeover in 1949. Strict social controls under Chairman Mao curtailed their activities but, nurtured by 20 years of capitalist reforms, the gangs are back with a vengeance.

Zhang Jun is a brutal example. The planned film of this gang leader's infamous rise and fall will outgun any of the Hong Kong gangster movies that have long packed cinemas in the mainland.

From 1994 until September this year, Zhang and accomplices killed more than 30 people and committed 17 robberies in five provinces. Zhang copied many classic triad moves, including forcing lieutenants and mistresses to kill at his command, as proof of loyalty and protection against betrayal.

Other gangs prefer trafficking drugs, historical relics or people. Regional specialities include armed robbers from the north-east, pickpockets from Xinjiang in the north-west, and car thieves from Wenzhou in Zhejiang. The Fuqing Gang, based in New York, is said to smuggle 100,000 people a year to America from Fujian province in south-east China.

Police are reticent, but one academic is going public. "China's criminal gangs have at least one million members," Professor Cai Shaoqing, an expert on crime, told China News Weekly. He names the worsthit cities as Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenyang and Guangzhou.

In the Thirties and Forties, free-wheeling Shanghai was a haven for adventurers and criminals. The "Green Gang" had extensive connections to Mao's favourite enemy, Chiang Kai-shek. Last week, the Shanghai Supreme People's Court concluded its first triad case since those times. Two ringleaders were sentenced to death, but escaped with a two-year suspension because the crime was the relatively benign blackmailing of bar girls and karaoke hostesses.

Next time could be different. Professor Cai says Chinese gangs are forming alliances with triads in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Four of the six leaders of Taiwan's "Four Seas Gang" are said to be setting up in Shanghai. But the ruling Communist Party is worried by their infiltration of party and government circles.

Professor Cao believes corrupt officials and police are the biggest obstacle to fighting organised crime. "Triads attach great importance to their official relationships. They bribe cadres in the party, the government and the legal system."

The foremost example is Liu Yong. From 1995, the one-time street trader exploited connections, coercion and murder to become a multi-millionaire and local legislator in the north-east city of Shenyang. He is awaiting trial for countless crimes, and the citizens of Shenyang are anxious to hear who he names as his protectors. Another gang leader, Chen Shisong, arrested in May this year, actually directed all appointments of Communist Party personnel in Rui'an city, Zhejiang.

"The primary task is to get rid of the 'protective umbrella'," says Professor Cai. "We must learn lessons from Russia. Our situations are similar. The criminal gangs emerged as the USSR broke up. Because the authorities did not strike hard enough, the anti-crime campaign was not effective. Now gangs run rampant in Russia, and it's hard to effect a permanent cure."

China's society is undergoing drastic change. Some analysts suggest the 100 million- strong "floating population" of migrant workers hunting jobs in the cities provides the bulk of the criminal fraternity. Professor Cai sees "fierce conflict between old and new systems, and old and new concepts" in China's transition from a planned to a market economy, and the lack of an effective social security system provides a "breeding ground for criminal activity to flourish".

Yet the crimewave is good news for some. "Our sales are better than ever," says Mr Chen, of Dongwei Body Armour in Shanghai. The firm's £160 bullet-proof vests allegedly protect the wearer even frommachine-guns.

The victims of 34-year-old Zhang Jun did have the protection of the vests. Zhang's career ended in a bungled robbery in September in Changde, Hunan. Spooked by alarms and a key that broke in the door of a cash-packed security van, Zhang and his accomplices killed eight people in their desperate escape.

He showed little remorse after he was caught. "I have almost died many times but this time I will certainly die," he told police. "My only regret is that I didn't have the opportunity to take my own life."

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