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HK Magazine Archive

The Ceremony's Over: This Is How Hong Kong's Police Find Triads

First enacted more than 170 years ago, the city's anti-triad legislation has undergone a number of makeovers.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 12:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:03pm

Hong Kong is changing and so is its organized crime. Gone are the days of searching for traces of elaborate triad initiation ceremonies and rituals, and grilling rookies on who their dai los are—chances are, they don’t know.

Criminology lecturer Dr. Kalwan Kwan at the University of Hong Kong says decentralized triad society structures and the anonymity of today’s online culture makes identifying culprits difficult. “There’s absolutely no need for human interaction. You can buy and sell drugs over WhatsApp,” he says.

Professors T. Wing Lo and Sharon Ingrid Kwok wrote that rituals involving smashing bowls, chopping off chicken heads, yellow gauze quilts and seasonal fruit have nowadays been simplified to avoid police detection. Organizational structure is flatter and members are allowed to work with other triad societies. Kwan says the flexibility of today’s triad memberships makes joining more appealing to young recruits.

“Nowadays, young people don’t join triads to make a living, it’s more of a lifestyle choice. Their parents’ generations, for example, would’ve stuck with the same employer for a long time, but, today, job-hopping is very common,” Kwan says. “The same trend applies to young people involved in triad activities—they can be working multiple jobs for multiple bosses without consequences, and quit just as easily.”

Read More: Sex, Violence and Triads: Dark Side of Hong Kong

This new, looser structure makes it more difficult for law enforcement to identify whoever is issuing orders. And, as Kwan points out, these criminal masterminds often have the backing of professionals, such as lawyers, accountants and IT personnel, which means the police have to rely on covert surveillance and informants to gather details on triad societies: “The police have evolved to tackle modern triads by enlisting the help of other professionals, as well as going professional themselves,” Kwan says.

Laws have evolved, too. First enacted more than 170 years ago, Hong Kong’s anti-triad legislation has undergone a number of makeovers. Yet, limitations still exist in today’s Societies Ordinance.

Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung says it’s difficult to convict a triad member on charges of being a member of a triad society, because the police need to gather a lot of evidence—often, it’s easier to charge a triad member on charges of claiming to be a triad member. This, however, comes with a lighter sentence, although the Societies Ordinance deals the same punishment for both charges.

What does this say about existing legislation? Lo and Kwok suggest this points to a lack of “sound legal guidance”, adding that the court’s reliance of literature that focus on triad rituals (which now have diminished relevance) and that contain outdated information, makes effective prosecution against alleged triad members difficult.

And, because triad rituals often resemble Chinese traditional rituals, Lo and Kwok say lawyers can sometimes justify their clients’ actions through the use of human rights arguments, for example, the freedom of expression and innovation. In 2007, staff of local brand “G.O.D.” were arrested for violating the Societies Ordinance by selling and making products that bore signs of 14K, one of the biggest local triad societies. The police never pursued legal action against G.O.D.

“Laws on surveillance and intercepting communications make it difficult for authorities to gather evidence against triad societies. Public safety and human rights—it’s a delicate balance.” —Kalwan Kwan

In a slightly more sinister case, in 1987, a leader of Sun Yee On, one of Hong Kong’s most influential triad societies, was convicted for his role in an unlawful society because red packets with his last name and symbols tied to Sun Yee On, along with a printer’s block and lists of triad members, were found at his office. But, the case was later dismissed because police experts could not find enough evidence to confirm the man’s role.

Ill-gotten Gains

The introduction of “The Organized and Serious Crime Ordinance” (OSCO) in 1994 redefined organized crime—“related to the activities of two or more persons associated together solely or partly for the purpose of committing two or more acts”—and, according to Lo and Kwok, enables law enforcement officials to target specific members of triad societies by confiscating their earnings.

But, citing findings by the Census and Statistics Department that show that less than 20% of all crime victimizations are reported, Kwan argues that this could be the reason why the amount of money seized from ill-gotten gains is a lot less than what triad societies actually earn. The South China Morning Post reported last year that over the past two decades, $2.7 billion has been confiscated from criminal gangs and $8.4 billion put beyond their reach. Kwan estimates that this amount is about a quarter of all illegal proceeds.

“To a certain extent, laws on surveillance and intercepting communications make it difficult for authorities to gather evidence against triad societies. Public safety and human rights—it’s a delicate balance,” Kwan says.

In the early 2000s, groups such as Against Child Abuse voiced support for the government’s The Juvenile Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2001, which proposed to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 7 years old to 14. The group insisted that children convicted in the adult system are more likely to become repeat offenders.

“If the change actually happened, triad leaders would have taken advantage of older children, say 12 or 13 year-olds, to commit crimes like drug trafficking, which is something 8 or 9 year-olds might not be capable of,” says Kwan. While in Hong Kong, a child can be found guilty of a crime once he reaches 10 years old, that age is much higher at 16 in neighboring Macau and Japan.