How tough Chaoshan became the Sicily of South China

With little local industry, Guangdong's tough eastern region has learnt to live off its wits

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 4:08am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 4:08am

Some call it the toughest part of a tough province. For decades, the Chaoshan area in eastern Guangdong has long been a hotbed for criminal syndicates that thrive on smuggling, counterfeiting and, more recently, the booming amphetamine trade.

Last month, more than 3,000 paramilitary troops and police in vans, helicopters and speedboats swooped on Boshe village in Lufeng county in one of the biggest drug busts conducted on the mainland.

Police had earlier attempted the operation but were thwarted by villagers armed with imitation AK-47s and grenades. This time they brought reinforcements, before dawn, to elude lookouts who had previously alerted the gangs to the police presence .

Police seized three tonnes of crystal meth worth an estimated HK$1.8 billion and 23 tonnes of raw materials. Officers arrested 182 people including the alleged ring leader, Cai Dongjia , the party secretary of Boshe and a People's Congress representative in nearby Shanwei .

So what lies behind this region's law lessness and its long association with organised crime? Lufeng is the hometown of one of Hong Kong's most notorious triads, the Sun Yee On. The Macau gangster Wan Kuok-koi, or "Broken Tooth", is a Lufeng native.

As the American historian Alfred McCoy noted in The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia: "[Chaoshan] syndicates have controlled much of Asia's illicit drug traffic since the mid-1800s and have played a role in China's organised crime rather similar to the Sicilian Mafia in Italy and the Corsican syndicates in France."

Geography has helped along the criminal element. Chaoshan's sandy soils and mountains make poor farmland but its rugged, sheltered bays and islands are ideal for smugglers.

Clan relationships are tight, and the Chaozhou dialect - unintelligible to Cantonese and Putonghua speakers - dominates. As China's industrial miracle has bypassed the region, locals must rely on their wits to make a living.

They have been emboldened by an abundance of guns. After the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, large numbers of surplus guns left in Guangxi made their way to eastern Guangdong.

Locals were quick to realise the value of the small-arms trade and Jiazi township became a centre for gun production. Smugglers in Shantou , Jieshi county, traded their fondness for watches to second-hand motorcycles in the 1990s.

Around the same time, criminals realised the paper and printing plants in the city's Chaonan district could be put to use making counterfeit banknotes.

Locals soon discovered that drugs were easier to make than guns and did not require constantly keeping up with advances in counterfeiting technology.

The economic barrier to enter the business was low - a crystal meth production line could be set up for two million yuan.

The region has been repeatedly targeted by police, but at the local level, top officers were bought off. It took a legion of provincial-level security units to finally penetrate the defences.

The government must hasten economic development and rid rural government elections of irregularities if it is to have a chance of cleaning up crime.