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University of Vienna

Institute of Social and Culture Anthropology

Final paper
Global Goods, Hegemony and Organized Crime: Socio-cultural Forms of Trade
and Trafficking of objects and people
Prof. Ulrike Davis-Sulikowski

Daniel Alberto Alegrett Salazar


Matriculation number: 1300822
CREOLE Master Program

Vienna, 5th October 2016

The Triads
This essay constitutes a critical overview of literature --listed at the end as the
consulted bibliography-- referred to the Triads. I reflect on the difficulties that may
be found in literature-based research on Chinese transnational organized crime that
chooses to use Triads as either an umbrella term covering for it, or for a particular
organization within it. For the latter, not really much can be said. And for the former,
the term Triads, though colorful and suggestive, proved to be misleading and a
nuisance for research, as it gives the illusion that extra-legal activities connected to
national or transnational groups or communities of Chinese origin or ethnicity
may have an unique organizational, hierarchical, and even cultural frame full of
pictoresque and complex esoteric symbolism, when the reality not only is that of
many Chinas (politically, religiously, ethnically, etc.) against orientalistic
constructions of Otherness, but also very loose, flexible, diverse organizational
practices which are not confined to organizations, not even criminal organizations,
but to individual entrepreneurs or familial associations, nor necessarily even present
in Chinese territories, nor conversely, nor even necessarily transnational or
cross-border, but microterritorial too.
In this, anthropology is both at fault and also contributing solutions to the problems in
researching organized crime in Chinese societies and communities. At fault, because
19th-Century anthropology and ethnography, and not mere European Orientalism were
quite informative of the gaze colonial military officers, civil servants and missionaries
who conducted field research on Triad societies in the Sinosphere or a Eastern
World-System that had already been constituted before it articulated with the
Euro-American World-System to globalized capitalism. Chinese communities and
trade influence already reached well beyond the mainland into other parts of Asia and
America by the 19th-Century when the British, Dutch and Portuguese
anthropologically-informed colonial officers started researching Chinese secret
societies or brotherhoods in Eastern and Southern Asia.
While formal and informal, legal and extralegal, light and shadow economies are
often the context in which Chinese entrepreneurs often associated in Triad societies
were found, inquiry often decided to view only their ritual and cult aspects as secret
societies, if they could inform European histories and formations of Bourgeois
masonic lodges (as they had been appropriated and sublimated from manual workers
there before) and gentlemen clubs, or if they were politically subversive, either in
service or disservice of colonial powers by promoting nationalist or factionalist
organization of opposition with their rituals. Often compared with Egyptian and
African cults, Sufi Orders, and Iroquois leagues, as the 19th Century ended,
evolutionist and (hyper) diffusionist approaches about secret societies and popular
religious cults informed even security forces worried about possible subversion. The
Triads were created by foreigners at this point, with a peculiar ethnicized Chinese
history that would be taken and repatriated and recycled into native political

mythologies of later local intellectuals, activists and revolutionaries according to their


interests, with the occasional convenient denial.
Researching the Triads as a Chinese form of organized crime group from
literature proves to be problematic. The very diverse quality of the literature even
becomes disturbing when some critical control is exerted over the material, which
then can be increasingly perceived as a received series of clichs and orientalistic
commonplaces rarely based on any form of fieldwork or first-hand account or direct
approach to Triad organizations and their activities, beyond that of older colonial
research on their rituals and folklore that treats them more as part of the
phenomenon of secret societies or popular esoteric religion cults with occasional
vague, ambiguous, understated and indirect references to their involvement in crime.
Frequently, that is is the exact wording and depth of reference made: they have been
known for their involvement in crime or---in the more careful terms that had been
used already in 19th-Century literature---in extra-legal activities. Extra-legal
activities may now seem a political correct term but being occasionally used by
colonial officers (military, civil or ecclesiastical), it is worth noting how it makes
more transparent how crime is defined by acts that fall outside of an hegemonic
legal order, be it that of Imperial China and its different dynasties and power
dynamics or British, Dutch or Portuguese colonial outposts in the East.
This resulted in the notion of a world-wide-sized Triad conspiracy of the Chinese and
their diaspora to control or partake in every kind of trafficking possible by a shadow
Dragon syndicate (with the dragon imagery often appearing as a colorful pun in
even the most serious researchers merely out of orientalist clich), instead of the
actual usual activities of gambling and its associated problems... which are indeed not
small and can reach large scales in the long chain of supplies it needs, activities it
enables, and (state, market and parallel) institutions it encompasses.
It was the colonial gaze which indeed created the Triads or Triad societies at least
as a term for certain mutual-aid organizations imbued in secrecy, ritualism, and
paralegal activities, which were already regulated and/or antagonized by Chinese
authorities as part of a long-standing cultural framework and institutional tradition
of voluntary association that, like all figures, activities or organizations that are
defined as criminal when not as subversive, must make up for the inability or
unwillingness of the State to respond to the chain of supply or demand of goods or
labor. In the Chinese case(s), its hegemonic regimes, be it kingdoms, empires, or
republics, and at least one of its religious-philosophical traditions, Confucianism,
voluntary associations of mutual-aid were fostered and encouraged to cover those
needs not attended by the State. This is one of the fundamental reasons for which
groups such as the Triad societies, gangs, and other black societies whose activities
that same State may dub as criminal when they fail to recognize its sovereignty and
hegemony over the traffic of goods, ideas, and people or the control of its territories,
are seen often as occupying integral and not only predatory positions in Chinese

society and Chinese communities.


Social historians have been keen on illuminating such associations that criminologists
or authorities treat as crime groups, as primarily directed towards mutual-aid,
downplaying its extralegal aspects. These come out as those that contest the
hegemony and the power of the State to provide and care for its subjects
(kingdom/empire) or citizens (republic), but since the late 20th-Century social
historians have been also keen on separating this micropolitics of mutual aid from a
subversive political role previously given by nationalist historians to Triad societies.
Indeed, part of the self-legitimizing mythology of the gangs and (Triad) societies
connected them to the original Triad society, the Heaven and Earth Association
(in which triad refers to the harmony of heaven, earth, and man/society/community) in
the 18th-Century and its achronistically assigned role in both the popular (Sung)
rebellion against the Ming dynasty (seen as native Mandarin) or, in contradiction to
that, in restoring the Ming dynasty against the Ching/Xing dynasty that replaced it
(seen as foreign because of its Manchurian origin).
Contradictory accounts as they seem, they served both the interests of the Communist
or the Nationalist factions against Chinese or foreign imperialism. Social historians
have pointed out that this political mythology is not the case for the old Triad nor the
contemporary ones, but it remains a commonplace that the Nationalist republican
faction may have been connected to the Triads through the membership of either
Chiang Kai Shek or Sun Yat Sen or both, and thus ready to subscribe to Triad
apologetic, specially after their expulsion from the mainland, which remained under
hegemonic control of the Communist Party without needing any other forms of
voluntary associations and famously heavy punishment against crime, with criminal
organizations retreating to offshore communities and the Chinese diaspora.
What social history indeed shows about the Sinosphere or a Asian world-system in
which the Chinese polities are central is that there has been for long centuries an
incredible demographic growth and the subsequent demographic pressures that not
only make land densely populated, scarce, and valued and apparently only
controllable by authoritarian regimes. Add to this the many ethnic (ethno-linguistic,
ethno-religious, etc.) layers that cut across Chinese social structures and social class
and status forms giving differential positions in the production process, to clan and
patriarchal ideologies and organizational arrangements, and you end up with a high
rate of unemployment that forces into labor migration and capital expansion across
borders, creating a diaspora ready to offer labor force or financial investment offshore,
but also, an overwhelming marginalization of huge portion of the population who are
driven into culturally instituted or state-sponsored forms of mutual aid by state
formations that had been more busy with extracting tribute or labor instead of offering
welfare, thus not surprising driving many into crime or predatory activities as a
desperate structural strategy for survival.

The sponsorship of the different historical forms the Chinese state has taken given to
mutual aid associations resonates strongly with current neoliberal governance as for
the welfare of its subject population, and differences in how to control its hegemony
over the social contract, specially in its definition of what is extralegal or criminal,
prosecuted and punished. And here lays the challenge and the blindspots that national,
international and transnational organized crime governance and research face when
dealing with extralegal activities by the Chinese if they are construed as perpetrated
by rigid, established, definitive criminal organizations as Triad societies.
Historically, natural associations like those of the kith and kin, i.e., kinship/family,
lineage and clan (or surnames) and residence and propinquity (hometowns), were to
be the safety network and labor and cooperation pool to which each subject was
supposed to resort for vital needs and every enterprise. Thus up today, specially
outside the Communist Party-dominated mainland or ethnic minorities deep inside the
continent, those natural associations are still the major grouping factor for Chinese
communities, specially in the diaspora, even for social clubs and other formal
organizations often associated with Chinese businesses abroad. Traditionally, the
Chinese state as kingdoms and empire, and perhaps thus modern state forms outside
of the mainland, have kept itself out of the private issues of natural associations. Thus
continued, violent, homicidal blood feuds were perfectly tolerated by the state within
this realm, as families were delivering justice to themselves and to each other. Unless
it spilled into subversion or lack of payment of taxation, the state had no business
there, and what could be defined elsewhere as crime, was not. Up to this day,
activities by Chinese that may be defined as criminal, legally or morally dubious, are
performed still within this kinship realm, specially those related to labor and human
trafficking, and escape detection or punishment by making trafficked persons and
their labor (the trivial example are the underpaid workers of any Chinese restaurant)
circulate through kinship bonds, or scandals or denounces being covered by them,
while attention is diverted to organized crime groups. This invisibilizes human
trafficking and even enables foreign governments to tolerate it or support it with their
visa regimes for family reunification. With kinship networks being so extendable and
inequality (age and senior/junior or cadet systems for individuals and lineages,
patriarchal and gender divides, etc.) being an integral part of them, kinship becomes a
mechanism for exploitation with a ready available reserve militia of cheap labor force
in the form of poorer
Confucianism and the Chinese kingdoms and Empire promoted the organization of
mutual aid voluntary associations for those who could not resort to kith and kin. Thus,
it is possible to trace the history of Chinese criminal organizations not only to the
18th-Century, but voluntary associations have been linked to crime in the long-written
tradition of China to the Middle Ages, to the 2nd Century of our era, and even to the
2nd Century before our era, and often the literature can abuse tracing the origin of the
Triads that far away, giving them a more monolithic, timeless, and culture-bound
ethnocentric representation.

Due the long-term excessive population and scarcity of land and work in China left
vast amounts of the population disenfranchised, particularly young men, who would
engage in cooperation. Brotherhoods and associations were regulated by the state, and
registered. Named associations, like registered businesses and enterprises, are the
origin of the so-called Triad societies, and their constitutive charters are the ones that
induce the researcher to overinterpret esoteric meaning in their use of symbolism and
their use of syncretic tropes (i.e., Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, Christian lumped all
together) of the constitutive diversity of Chinese imagery for their mission and
vision statements become subversive or shady manifestos in the eyes of the colonial
or state gaze. Even the size of their membership was regulated by the state, up to five
members in the 19th Century, which meant that criminality is already implied in any
excessive membership, but it should be duly noted the small size of these
organizations against the imagined global Triad conspiracy view of an all penetrating
Chinese mafia.
Although the traditional aim of these associations was to support each other in the
pious and elaborate tasks of funerals, it also meant work exchange and association in
banditry, pillage, plundering, and extorting protection of land and property. Here the
Chinese state was not tolerant and prosecution often meant fleeing into the islands,
which meant their penetration into overseas Chinese territories and diasporic
communities and their displacement from the mainland predates the hegemony of the
Communist Party.
These named associations as thus that were called Triads and sometimes similar
to older masonic lodges (and not to modern gentlemen clubs in the North Atlantic)
when achieving thus were characteristically small and, conversely, larger criminal
gangs often do not qualify as organized crime groups but as a marginalized
youth-related issue of disenfranchisement and dispossession, which should not be
confused with Triad societies even if they may also appropriate symbols and rituals
of initiation to promote internal cohesion and loyalty. But these black societies
(gangs) indeed may be synergic and network with Triad societies: the former may
provide the muscle in a particular turf or territory while the second may provide the
brains in an operation.
They should be distinguished from what are called tongs: social clubs and
hometowns associations around which the business-life of diasporic Chinatowns may
be centered, and which can have diverse origin as natural association of residence or
voluntary association of mutual aid. Far from Triads, most of the extralegal
activities outside Chinese territories are the doing of such tongs and they pertain more
to the informal sector, besides their legal activities as ethnic entrepreneurs. Yet their
crimes usually go unprosecuted as they occur and cater to their services to their own
communities. Traditional activities have included the smuggling of Chinese powder
for fireworks (sold for traditional Chinese festivals but in many countries to

mainstream populations for their own festivities like New Year in Latin America or
the 4th of July in the US), in which they clash against their host states as firepowder is
almost universally regulated by governments due their possible use as weapon and not
just because of violation of customs controls, but most notably the smuggling of
people as labor trafficking (violating labor regulations more than migration one)
and illegal gambling (revenue violations). But gambling becomes a complex set of
institutions: it includes loan-sharking and extorsion, where the Triads have their mot
predatory practices, and illegal casinos where drinks and tobacco can be sold without
a license, or where women can sell sex. Indeed Chinese tongs historically controlled
White women prostitution in the UK, but the Asian Girls Studios so frequent in
Austria and Germany are a reminder that they traffic nowadays not only Chinese
women but also other Southeast Asian women. Notably, there has been apparently no
involvement of Triad societies in human trafficking. The United States Justice
Department even declared in 2004 that they had not found any connection between a
Chinese organized crime and human trafficking. Perhaps this is more an interested
absolution to legitimize US-Chinese trade, but indeed not all major transnational
crimes can be positively linked to organizations such as Triads or Mafias.
Individual Chinese entrepreneurs were heavily involved in such traffic, and the traffic
of women seems to be carried over specially by other female Chinese entrepreneurs,
as the late and convicted Sister Peng, who like Robin Hood, Carlos, or Pablo
Escobar or Italian dons, is going to have her own Hollywood movie.
This refers to the phenomenon of Snakeheads, human traffickers, who move their
Snaketail trafficked victims by their own volition but paying exorbitant sums that
requires loans from the loan-sharking snakeheads and debt-slavery by the snaketails.
Again, Triads do not appear in the criminological literature related to trafficking but
indeed to loan-sharking. Snakeheads resort to their charisma and their own social
networks and not to criminal organizations, or at least this has been deliberately
whitewashed by the US and the EU in their Chinese relations, as many countries
tolerate or even sponsor the immigration of Chinese citizens as semi-slave labor force
or as ethnic entrepreneurs.
On the other side, the increasing phenomenon of child-trafficking within mainland
China or out of it seems unrelated to Triad societies and any form of organized crime
beyond adoption agencies that find the one-child policy of China as an opportunity.
The children are mobilized by individual entrepreneurs or their own families, as is
seen positively as a social mobility strategy that secures the future for the excessive
children of poor families in a country where there is a raising middle class that may be
childless, or to Euro-American couples.
Gangs and their street life, tongs and their clubs, casinos and restaurants are also a
traditional venue for drug trafficking. Curiously, there is not a single true reference to
any opium trafficking by Triads in the literature. Heroine trafficking by Chinese

groups is a very recent phenomenon that exists outside of the Triads, and outside
China is related to tongs, not Triads. Triad societies seem in Chinese territories to
engage in the production and circulation of metamphetamines, while heroine
produced in the Golden Triangle passes into China for consumption and through what
is now called the Red-Black societies, that is, a network of gangs and corrupt
Communist officers of any level in the armed forces or the Justice system.
The current one country, two-systems that rules over Chinese territories (mainland
and overseas) precisely enable a dynamics that fosters organized crime and corruption,
and Triad societies, far from being a transnational threat, are focused into penetrating
China while the Red mafia and the Chinese government re-colonizes the overseas
terrritories after retrocesssion from the British. They cooperate in this, as Triads and
gangs from the islands provide welcome services that did not exist in the mainland
and its new socialist market economy such as extra legal protection needed due to
the ineffiency or lack of legal infrastructure to protect rising private businesses and
business class in mainland China, while the Chinese government achieves hegemony
over the formerly foreign-controlled territories and combats pro-democratic
demonstrators through the muscles of gangs and the brains of Triads, while having
plausible deniability for such actions.
Despite Western sensationalism about killings and indigenous promotion of
gangster-kung fu fighter self-images, apparently social life is perceived as not
threatened by Triad societies in their Hong Kong homeland nor in their penetration
into the mainland. They are not seen as predatory but integral to social life there, and
this may increase with their exansion into continental China. If they really can be
unlinked to transnational human trafficking and only linked to casino-brothels, it
could be alleged that they promote upward social mobility of women through
commercial sex,. Even if they are indeed linked to the very visible sex traffic in the
EU, it is migration authorities of the latter that must clear up the situation. Their
traditional predatory activities like loan-sharking, if not restricted to Chinese
territories, can be even seen positively as an informal sector response to the
restrictions formal banks place to ethnic entrepreneurs and migrant communities
which are most often not given credits or loans for investment.
To really find out what the Triads are and what Chinese organized crime, specially
in its transnational incarnation across a global diaspora, criminological research is
increasingly focusing in researching their activities and not their allegedly
Chinese-culture-bound esoteric organizational structures and their pictoresque
folklore. Criminologists are increasingly resorting to fieldwork instead of mere police
reports and court transcriptions, that were flawed by having a low rate of conviction
as corrupt police forces and courts are even in their own self-representations
controlled by Triads, gangs, tongs, and the Red Mafia. Ethnography is
increasingly taken over by crime researchers, even if cultural anthropologists still
express doubts about how they may access such underworld while sociologists

already have an advantages over that. Yet anthropologists nowadays are fully prepared
to accept diversity and flexible networking organizations without organisms and
practices instead of imagining rigid hierarchical organizations with a very defined and
fixed ethnic framework. It is even my impression that anthropological research on
Special Economic Zones and Development Poles and Triangles in Asia have nailed
down better what transnational organized crime might be and its complex and
synergic (and not oppositional) relations with states and markets and capital flows
than criminologists and their fixation for hierarchical structures of bosses and foot
soldiers in ethnically-delimited mafia groups. The most alarming feature that the
literature of Chinese organized crime and its transnational dimensions may be
showing is the acquiescence of the Chinese state with its industrial capacity and its
counterfeit products produced alongside legal ones with cheap semi-slave labor, with
its double economic system for the mainland and the overseas territories, and how it
colonizes the Chinese diaspora with the welcoming gestures of foreign governments
and foreign political lobbies that are happy to open their markets to Chinese investors
and Chinese loans. In the Third World it has become a way in which China dictates
local policy to their weakened governments and in the Global North it provokes
lobbying that gets rid of fair and just environmental and labor legislation and
regulations in the name of maintaining the strength of their economies. Chinese
governmental support is quickly becoming not only new air to their own organized
crime, but an accomplice of the globalization of neoliberal governance. This might be
the only global conspiracy of the honorable Triad societies: to promote business as
usual.

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