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Infernal Affairs - Triads in Hong Kong
The Asian Crime Century briefing thirteen
There has been an increase in Triad related crime in Hong Kong that has raised questions regarding whether the pursuit of national security related cases has distracted the police from their core role of preventing and detecting crime. Organised crime and Triads in particular require constant police enforcement action to ensure suppression, but the number of cases as well as the nature of some of the cases in the past several years indicates that Triad activity and influence may be increasing.
To recap on what Triads are, “Triad society” is an English designation given by Europeans to Chinese secret societies during the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912). “Triad” is derived from references to the emblem of a branch of secret societies in southern China known variously as the Tin Tei Wui (天地會, Heaven and Earth Association), Sam Hop Wui (三合會, Three United Association), Sam Dim Wui (三點會, Three Dots Society), and Hung Mun (洪門, Hung Sect). To modern Cantonese speakers, Triads are usually known simply as Hak Sh’e Wui (黑社會, Black Societies). Triad societies are by definition criminal in Hong Kong and have been the basis of organised criminal gangs. Triads are useful criminal platforms because of their secrecy and rituals (although these have lessened over time), which are a means of ensuring that the Triad society is enduring in the face of enforcement and suppression by the authorities.
The crime data published by the police shows a clear increase in Triad related crimes. In 2022 there were 2,554 Triad related crimes, compared to 1,888 in 2021, 1,761 in 2020, and 1,353 in 2019. Also indicating a problem is the increase in the overall number of reported crimes in 2022 to 70,048, compared to 64,428 in 2021, 63,232 in 2020, and 59225 in 2019. Increases over three consecutive years in Triad related crimes and overall crime indicate a problem.
The crime rate is clearly increasing, but it is important to understand what type of crime is increasing and how are Triads responsible for this (if at all). Violent crime in Hong Kong continues to decrease to 8,830 in 2022, compared to 9,587 in 2021, 9,391 in 2020, and 9,690 in 2019. Homicides, robberies, and serious assaults all continue to be relatively low and are not increasing. So Triad related crimes are most likely in other areas.
Deceptions are the criminal growth area in Hong Kong, as they are across Asia. In 2022 there were 27,923 deception cases reported, compared to 19,249 in 2021, 15,553 in 2020, and 8,216 in 2019. The number of reported deception cases has tripled from 2019 to the end of 2022. Deceptions and frauds are endemic across Asia, and Hong Kong is part of this criminal growth area. Triads are likely to utilise modern deceptions for profit as telephone and Internet frauds are low cost and easy to organise.
In an operation to combat online fraud during March, the police arrested six people for deception involving a total of over HK$800,000 related to 75 online fraud cases. The cases involved two main modes of operation: Online investment scams involved victims who met scammers on social media or dating apps, and scammers then used fake investment apps to lure the victims into making "high-return investments". Online shopping scams involved victims who saw posts on social media about sale of hotel packages, theme park tickets, electronics, and food, and responded to the scammers. The police stated that some of those arrested have Triad backgrounds and they believe that crimes related to online deception and money laundering have become a new source of income for Triad societies.
There also remain considerable other areas of traditional Triad criminal activity, illustrated by police action as well as high profile cases in the past year. From 29th March, the Hong Kong Police launched a series of anti-Triad operations that resulted in the arrest of 126 people suspected to have been involved in serious wounding, possession of offensive weapons, operation of gambling establishments, and trafficking of dangerous drugs, money laundering, robbery, and burglary.
In March, the police arrested three suspected Triad members in connection with a daytime knife attack in Sheung Shui, in the New Territories region. The men were suspected to be members of a faction of the Wo Shing Wo Triad society who had attacked the victim, believed to be a member of a faction of the 14K Triad, as a warning. This sort of attack and Triad conflict seems to be becoming more frequent and more brazen.
Several days later, three more suspected Wo Shing Wo Triad members were arrested after a kidnapping and assault reportedly related to illegal drug transactions. The kidnapping took place in the afternoon in the middle of the busy Jordan area of Kowloon, but failed as the culprits drove 600 metres before they were stuck in a traffic jam (one of the major deterrents to street crime in Hong Kong!).
Triad gatherings and confrontations had been decreasing in profile during the 1990s and early 2000s, most likely due to proactive policing aimed at continual suppression of Triad groups. This trend seems to have been reversed if recent cases are an indicator. On New Year’s Day this year a street brawl took place around 6.30am in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon region, reportedly involving members of the Sun Yee On and Wo Shing Wo Triads.
In December 2022, suspected members of the Sun Yee On and Wo Shing Wo Triad societies were involved in a violent confrontation in the popular Lan Kwai Fong entertainment area of Hong Kong Island, during which two shots were fired from a 9mm handgun. The police responded quickly with high profile raids and arrests, but one could question whether this approach is proving to be reactionary to Triad activity rather than sufficiently proactive in targeting Triad leaders and fund flows.
The capability and commitment of some of the police to effectively combat Triad societies is in question. In August 2022, three Hong Kong police officers were found guilty of conspiring with Triad members to pervert the course of public justice by tipping them off about an imminent raid on an illegal gambling den four years ago. Most worryingly, the police officers were from the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau, which has traditionally been the leading police unit to combat Triads in Hong Kong. The police officers had provided information to a faction of the Wo Shing Wo Triad society in the Tsuen Wan area warning them of a planned police raid on an illegal betting establishment.
Although the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau is the lead department for anti-Triad operations it has also been heavily deployed in the past few years to take enforcement action against protest related offences, which raises the question of whether this has stretched the unit too far and distracted its officers from their core role to combat Triads and organised crime. There is no need to consider subjective arguments on this question as the reported crime data provides an immediate answer - 2,554 Triad related crimes in 2022 compared to 1,888 in 2021. The rising number of cases and the high profile Triad related cases suggest that there is a problem, and the historical means of dealing with the Triad problem is a long term concerted strategy of suppression of the most senior Triad leaders as well as junior members.
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