Secret societies and criminal organisations have been part of the fabric of Chinese society and politics since the beginning of the 20th Century. But we aren’t talking about the next blockbuster film about crime syndicates of Shanghai, this is a real story of Chinese politicians and criminals working in tandem.
On Monday, Macau police arrested Alvin Chau, junket boss and CEO of Suncity — one of the world’s biggest junket companies listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Junket system is a gambling operation in Macau that attracts high-end gamblers from across the world.
According to Chinese state media, Chau’s operations include 12,000 gaming agents and 80,000 gambling members. He has been arrested for setting up overseas gambling platforms and is said to have ties with Macau ‘triad’ — a term used for Chinese transnational organised crime groups.
In 2019, Chau was barred from entering Australia after concerns about “large-scale money laundering activities” through his partnership with Crown Resorts, Australia’s largest gaming group.
China’s secret societies
The history of Chinese politicians mingling with secret societies goes back to Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen who had an extensive association with underground networks in Shanghai. Chiang Kai Shek, Sun Yat-sen’s successor, relied on a secret society named “Green Gang” to collect information on communists.
After coming to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cracked down on the “Green Gang” for its ties with Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang and its involvement in the 1927 Shanghai anti-communist attack.
The CCP forced out the Chinese triads and secret societies from the mainland during the Chinese civil war. These societies and triads moved to Hong Kong and Taiwan, where they continued to operate.
CCP’s relationship with triads began to change under Deng Xiaoping — China’s leader between 1978 and 1989.
On 23 May 1982, Deng Xiaoping met Hong Kong tycoons Li Ka-shing and Henry Fok to establish ties with the city’s triads. Deng said in 1984, that “not all triads are bad, many of them were good, and many are patriots”. The idea of patriotic triads legitimised the criminal organisations and gave them the immunity to operate.
The key to understanding CCP’s relationship with the triads is through the United Front Work Department. United Front is a political tool used by the CCP to create divisions while achieving its agenda through non-government entities and affiliated individuals. United Front groups can often be private Chinese citizens living outside of China as students or workers.
The United Front Department and the Chinese intelligence agencies work in tandem with triads to run their businesses, launder money, and seek political influence in the West. United Front organisations are usually hidden behind innocuous-sounding non-governmental organisations. They’re also called a “magic weapon” by the party.
Over the years, the CCP has come to use these organisations to achieve various political goals in Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities. The CCP has used the triads to attack civil society activists, journalists and other opponents in Hong Kong.
In Taiwan, a party named China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) was founded by organised crime member Chang An-Le, who has sought to do Beijing’s bidding. Chang An-Le, also known as ‘White Wolf’, is a convicted extortionist, heroin trafficker and kidnapper, who has close ties with CCP princelings. The ‘Bamboo Union’ – Chang original triad – has moved drugs and firearms in the region.
Chang doesn’t hide his ties with the CCP and has acknowledged meeting the party princelings. He has openly called China to invade Taiwan militarily. “Because my country is China, and I am on the Chinese Communist Party’s side, so these Taiwanese laws cannot apply to me,” Chang had said in the past.
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party members have called on the judiciary to charge Chang An-Le for endangering Taiwan’s national security law. He is one of the many actors in Taiwan who have ties to Beijing and seek to create a more favourable political environment for CCP in Taiwan.
Canada has been one of the “permissive targets” of triads, Chinese intelligence, and the United Front Department. Canadian journalist Sam Cooper described in his recent book the story of how Chinese intelligence, gambling, triads, and money launderers have operated in public view. Canada’s real estate and casino gambling are the targets of Chinese intelligence and triads to launder money.
“The implication is that Chinese organized crime networks are not just laundering drug cash through casino junkets. They also use casinos and real estate investment to produce cash for Chinese Communist Party operations in North America, including political bribes. In intelligence-speak, this would be called threat-financing,” Cooper writes in his book, ‘Willful Blindness: How a Network of Narcos, Tycoons and CCP Agents Infiltrated the West.’
China’s presence in Canada and Australia have given the CCP access to the West’s corridors of power. United Front groups have a history of harassing overseas Chinese who speak out against CCP. “Chinese intelligence services have set up ‘front companies’ in Canada solely for espionage purposes, including theft of business secrets… The companies have regular contacts with the triad gangs,” Cooper’s book adds.
The recently apprehended Alvin Chau is no outsider to the party, and has served as a member of the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (PCC). The Conference is a political advisory body of the CCP and a central element of the United Front system.
In 2011, Chau entered the movie production business with Sun Entertainment Culture Company. The company has produced movies such as ‘From Vegas to Macau’ trilogy (2014, 2015, 2016) and ‘Kung Fu Jungle’ (2014). Chau’s movies often mix Chinese patriotism with gambling, deceit, gangs and drama. Chinese social media users are now questioning Chau’s films’ patriotism and the role of money laundering in movie production.
China’s border controls because of zero-Covid policy and strict laws have always made it difficult for Macau gambling operations to attract foreign gamblers. There are signs that a coordinated political crackdown might be on the way ahead of the Digital Yuan rollout. The licences given to Macau casinos are about to expire in June 2022.
The world has only recently learned about the intersection between the CCP, Chinese intelligence, triads, and gambling operations. Xi Jinping might be trying to root out the intersecting influence of triad and CCP factions, which may become a cause of trouble for him.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)