The effects of the Hong Kong protests are spreading — to bakeries, bandits and Beijing.
As messages supporting the demonstrations began appearing on the pastry skin of seasonal mooncakes, opposition to the protests suddenly took the form of muscle from the local mafia. The protesters, for their part, have recently taken to pointedly marching toward mainland China’s formal representation in the city — and to accusing both the Hong Kong police and the Chinese authorities in Beijing of enlisting criminals to do their dirty work.
On Monday, the spokesman of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, China’s top outpost in the city, finally broke its studied silence about the massive, monthslong revolts. He said that “Beijing would resolutely continue” to support the beleaguered Hong Kong government and that the local authorities’ most important task was to “resolutely punish violent crimes according to law.”
By this he meant that the Chinese government is resolutely applying a flagrant double standard: essentially backing police brutality — with the support of organized crime, as needed — while virulently condemning protesters even though they remain mostly peaceful, with only several handfuls throwing bricks at the police and defacing symbols of government authority.
On Sunday, July 21, a mob in Yuen Long, a township in northwestern Hong Kong near the border with mainland China, attacked antigovernment protesters returning home from a march downtown, as well as other commuters and bystanders. The police didn’t intervene; officers were seen passing by or walking away. At least 45 people were injured, some severely.
Most attackers wore white tops — the protesters tend to dress in black — and wielded poles and metal rods. Some have been identified as members of Hong Kong’s legendary and much-feared triads, secret societies that often double as violent, mafia-like criminal networks. At least three well-known triads — 14K, Wo Sing Wo and Shui Fong — are said to have been responsible for the attack in Yuen Long.
Of that horde — more than 100 people, according to most sources, although one says it was 800-strong — only 12 suspects have been arrested, on charges that remain unclear. Nine of them are thought to have connections to organized crime.
On the other hand, on Wednesday at least 44 pro-democracy protesters were charged with rioting-related offenses for demonstrations they held just this weekend (partly in response to the violence in Yuen Long) — and those charges are punishable by prison sentences of up to 10 years.
It’s difficult not to see nefarious connections in these disparities, or even coordination between the Hong Kong government, the police and local gangs, as well as the Chinese authorities in Beijing.
Secret societies in China have a long history of serving as a fifth column for the powers-that-be, whatever the persuasion — forging a sometimes rocky but often cooperative relationship based on mutual protection. These groups first appeared several hundred years ago: social outcasts organized as armed bandits, sometimes to oppose the authorities, sometimes only to be co-opted by them.
The popular 14th-century Chinese novel “Water Margin” romanticizes some of the gangs’ Robin Hood-like exploits. By the 19th century, these groups embodied anti-foreign sentiment and extolled ethnic-Han identity, as well as endorsed religious or even revolutionary agendas — all the while pursuing criminal activities.
The biggest of the secret societies, known as Hong Men (洪門 or Torrential Gate), appeared in the late 17th century, originally in opposition to Manchurian invaders from the northeast. Long connected with diaspora Chinese, it has deep roots in Chinatowns throughout the world. Some of its chapters in the United States raised funds and bought weapons for the revolution of 1911: One of its members, Sun Yat-sen, founded the Republic of China, on Western democratic principles. (Sun’s protégé Chiang Kai-shek was, for his part, supported by the Green Gang of Shanghai, which engaged in the opium trade, prostitution, gambling and extortion — and helped Chiang suppress the labor unions.)
For decades, Hong Men was strongly anti-Communist and pro-Taiwan. After coming to power in 1949, the Communist Party suppressed the triads in China: Monopolies on power also do not suffer competition. But as China began to unleash economic reforms in the late 70s, especially outside the mainland, much of Hong Men became pro-Beijing. At first, the group was softened by the prospect of trade and other lucrative opportunities; later, by Han nationalism, which it shared with the Communist government.
Hong Men has a long history in Hong Kong. Many of the triads in the city are loosely identified with the organization, if only as informal, self-appointed local chapters — with tens of thousands of adherents.
Some triads, especially those operating in the Yuen Long area, became close to the Hong Kong ruling class after Britain handed the city over to China in 1997. Today, they exert influence partly through connections with local representative bodies set up to defend the interests of residents whose families have long lived in Hong Kong — groups that, in turn, weigh heavily in the process by which Hong Kong’s chief executive is selected. As such, these have been courted, mostly with business opportunities, by the China Liaison Office in recent years.
Local media have reported that in February 2012 close associates of the politician C.Y. Leung, then a candidate to become chief executive, attended a dinner with well-known members of a triad, and that they were seeking the men’s support for Mr. Leung. Mr. Leung did become chief executive later that year and the alleged connection dogged him. (He has sued or threatened to sue several publications for defamation over this claim, including one I long wrote for and another I sometimes contribute to.) Two of the people said to have been present at that dinner — nicknamed Shanghai Kid and Nga Nga (Baby) — are thought to be leaders of Wo Sing Wo. Members of the group are among the white shirts who attacked pro-democracy protesters and bystanders on July 21.
The Yuen Long police didn’t just fail to stop the violence that recent evening; according to witnesses, the rampage unfolded for more than half an hour before the police arrived. And then officers seemed mostly to stand around or mill about — or, in some cases, mingle amiably with the armed attackers. Many victims’ calls to the city’s emergency number went unanswered.
Yet the police reportedly had been warned of an imminent attack by mobsters. And some 10 days before, at a banquet for hundreds of village residents, Li Jiyi, the director of the China Liaison Office’s district office, had said of protesters: “We won’t allow them to come to Yuen Long to cause trouble.”
China is thought to have enlisted the help of the Hong Kong triads before. Back in 1984, Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, famously said of the city’s gangs: “There are many good guys among them.” In 1993, Tao Siju, China’s chief of public security, said, “As long as these people are patriotic, as long as they are concerned with Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, we should unite with them.”
In February 2014, Kevin Lau, a former editor of Ming Pao, a newspaper once known for its liberal views and independent investigations, was critically injured by a gangster wielding a meat cleaver. The attack was widely believed to be a politically driven triad job. During the Umbrella Movement of 2014, some 200 hired thugs reportedly infiltrated and in some cases attacked demonstrators.
But the recent attack by mobsters in Yuen Long far exceeded those previous incidents in scale, blatancy and brutality. A century ago, triads on the mainland joined a revolution; today, the gangs of Hong Kong are mercenaries, for hire by an oppressive government.
The Chinese authorities in Hong Kong made rare, and revealing, statements this week. They have yet to say anything about the triads’ ignominious attack on July 21, but they have called the protests “violent radical incidents.” On Wednesday, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong expressed “strong condemnation” of the protests, lauded the Hong Kong police and government — and released a video of mainland troops in mid-drill.
The overall message was clear: The authorities in Beijing want to crush this movement, by hook and by crook.
Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University, in Kofu, Japan, and a contributing opinion writer.