Trial of China's 'Sopranos' revives Triad fears

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The Independent Online

Beijing's No 2 Intermediate People's Court is hearing a list of charges that would be familiar to TV's fictional mobster clan, The Sopranos - bribery, assault, extortion, gambling, slicing off ears and the possession and sale of firearms.

Except this family is the Hu brothers, hard men from Shunyi in the Beijing suburbs, in what the Public Security Bureau says is one of the biggest gang-related criminal cases ever to blight the capital.

Thirty-four suspects are facing organised crime charges in a trial that has electrified a city which is fearful of the revival of long-dormant Triad-style secret societies. For hundreds of years, the saying in China was that "gangsters and police belong to the same family", but the Communist Party insisted on total control and forced out the secret societies. Now runaway economic growth and a growing income gap has seen corruption creep into local government and led to the emergence of a criminal underworld.

Legal experts believe there could be as many as one million mobsters in China, but despite collusion with officials, most are local gangsters and none is yet led by a Mafia-type godfather in the style of the secret societies of yore.

The Hu brothers, Yadong, 45, and Yafeng, 44, started a business in the late 1990s illegally buying and selling scrap vehicles, the prosecution says. They expanded their operations in April 2004 to include an illegal sand quarry in the northeastern district of Shunyi, near Beijing's airport, which earned them £180,000.

Shunyi is home to most of Beijing's new crop of luxury villa developments, high-walled, heavily guarded compounds that are home to expatriates and wealthy Chinese, with names like "Beijing Riviera", "Yosemite Villas" and "Chateau Regalia". The Hu brothers soon recruited dozens of hatchet men and formed a well- organised gang, investigators say. According to the prosecution, Hu Yadong sent the heavies round to beat up a man surnamed Zhang in 1996 because he refused to use Hu's garage. Half of Zhang's right ear was cut off. They put crooked cops on the payroll.

The brothers turned to politics. In June 2004, Hu tried to manipulate a village election by forcing villagers to vote for their candidate, prosecutors allege. Then the Hu brothers began to enlist the help of city authorities and became involved in rubbish collection, extorting money from refuse collectors. Zheng Ge, an officer at the Shunyi jail, and Liu Haiying, an interrogator with Shunyi Public Security Bureau, accepted bribes, prosecutors say, while in April 2004, a police officer, Peng Yinsheng, allegedly had dinner at a restaurant with Hu Yadong - while Hu was supposedly in jail.

Senior Communist officials have expressed their fears that domestic and foreign Triads are trying to infiltrate the country.

In May last year around 40 suspected mobsters, including the Hu brothers, were arrested. The trial is expected to run until next week. Police began an investigation in early 2004 after a number of complaints from the public but the investigation was slow as victims were worried about revenge attacks.

However, the government launched a crackdown in February and more than 1,000 gang-related crimes are under investigation. Thirty criminals have received jail terms of more than five years, life imprisonment or the death penalty.

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