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Date Posted: 10:34 20/05/2004

The rule of crooks, not laws

How do you shake off centuries of entrenched criminality?

IT HAS been reported this week that in order to protect the morality of China's youth, all crime stories will be removed from prime-time television. Such sops to the forces of conservatism are common, of course, but at least the newspapers remain, for the moment, unaffected and unabashed. They continue to trawl through China's burgeoning underworld, telling tales of the countless small-time hoodlums and psychopaths now preying on the innocent.

The Beijing based newspaper, Xin Jing Bao, ran a fascinating story last week about a certain Chen Yifeng, one of a new generation of Chinese mobsters who prospered during the reform period. Chen broke heads under the cover of legitimate business, and – like Liu Yong, the Shenyang-based hoodlum executed last year - then donated a great deal of his illicit earnings to the reconstruction of his home village and to a charitable foundation established under his name. Like many gangsters, including Al Capone and the head of the Shanghai Green Gang, Du Yuesheng, ordinary people are divided principally into those he helped and those he ruthlessly struck down. If you are desperate, as much of the population is, you are not going to worry too much if the source of your income is, strictly speaking, illicit.

Chen Yifeng's charitable foundation. Image: Xin Jing Bao

Amid all the discussions about the spectacular rise of corruption in post-Maoist China, it is often forgotten that the history of the country over the past two centuries at least has, in one way or another, been a history of crime. Bandits have roamed the Chinese interior for centuries, and as the hold of the Qing dynasty began to crumble, much of the countryside came to be dominated by marauding bands of brigands, while most of the coastline was patrolled by pirates. Secret sects vied for control, raided rival villages, and set up protection rackets along China's rudimentary trade routes. Meanwhile, arguably the biggest villains of all, the British East India Company, were using gunships to open the Chinese market to opium. The rule of law could not reach particularly far when the nation was collapsing, the government reduced to decadence and corruption, and the people struggling desperately against famines, droughts, floods, military skirmishes, and systematic oppression.

Once the Qing Dynasty collapsed, all the centrifugal forces that had been building up over the past centuries were suddenly released. The nation was divided into a number of warring fiefdoms governed by rapacious criminals known as warlords, none of whom paid even lip service to the idea of the public good. Pillage was their purpose, brutality their modus operandi. Essentially, China had fragmented into a number of what we now call 'state shells', a series of fragile but vicious war economies vying to expand their territory and fill their coffers at the expense of their rivals. A power vacuum had been filled by semi-military gangster organizations that sustained themselves through robberies, sackings, drug trafficking, and punitive 'taxation' regimes that were, in effect, little more than protection rackets.

And so, what rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? Extreme predicaments require equally extreme solutions, and with the country in such turmoil, nothing pure and good could possibly have survived. Sun Yatsen, whose claims to sainthood are based, primarily, on the fact that he died relatively early and had wielded relatively little power during his lifetime, was a Triad member and, as it happens, an incorrigible womanizer. His successor, the more practically-minded Chiang Kai-shek, was a ruthless warlord with a sort of 'Confucian-Fascist' ideology to match. And yet, for all the high dogma, to succeed in such rough times, you must be capable of the most pernicious of compromises. Surrounded by the sort of gangster scum that thrive in such chaotic, lawless conditions, Chiang could not have succeeded without being tarnished by them. His deal with the devil himself, Du Yuesheng, might have helped him secure power, but it came at a high price.

Crime was, in effect, an established part of the regime. Du helped prop up the KMT, and the regime in turn allowed Du to continue peddling opium and resist any kind of legal control. The Green Gang helped the KMT to eliminate Communist and other Leftist presence in Shanghai, and the KMT in turn allowed the Green Gang to run the labour unions more or less as they pleased.

The Communist Party was itself not untarnished, of course. Driven out of the cities and forced to transform itself into a rural liberation movement, it gathered under its wing a large number of native sects and bandit gangs, many of which provided a solid recruitment ground for the Red Army. Indeed, the CCP's guerrilla tactics were derived in part from the roaming bandit organizations that prevailed in the dirt poor, famine-ridden Chinese countryside, and biographies even claim that Mao Zedong's first taste of political activism was at a protest launched by the ancient secret organization known as the Society of Elder Brothers, a band of rural brigands with a strong code of honour that had been in operation for centuries.

When there is civil war and chaos and widespread terror, the relationship between politics and crime is a complex and even symbiotic one. Throughout history, movements subjected to such severe beatings by the central authorities have turned to raids, drug dealing, or kidnapping in order to continue to function, and that remains the case with the Peruvian Shining Path, the Columbian FARC, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army and an assortment of Islamicist movements across the Balkans, the Middle East and central Asia. In China, it happened with the Triads. They began, according to legend at least, in the embers of the Shaolin Temple, which had been burnt to the ground by an army dispatched by the Manchu court in Beijing. They vowed to avenge their betrayal by the Qing Dynasty and restore the purity of the Mings. In order to survive, they turned to crime. Centuries later, they had become nothing but criminals.

And it stood to reason that in such extreme turmoil, there were those who chose to get ahead by turning to crime. With a steady flow of disaffected, poverty-stricken youths, there was no shortage of gang members prepared to kill and maim at the behest of Du and others. It was always the case that to defend yourself against despots, you found yourself subjecting yourself to other despots. In the circumstances – the floods and the famines, aggravated by the corruption and cruelty of government officials – crime becomes an eminently plausible way of survival.

Sun Yatsen, committed Triad that he was, said in a pamphlet written before the 1912 revolution that China's spiritual renewal would come from the underclass, and the secret societies would be the spearhead. Looking at the way the Green Gang kept Chiang Kai-shek in power, Sun was almost right. Later, Mao Zedong would cast himself in the honorable tradition of the peasant-bandit, owing more to the Water Margin than Das Kapital.

The government has recently been trying to convince us that it is going to extend the concept of the rule of law to the whole of China, but old habits die hard. It is safe to say that in the chaotic 1920s and 1930s, there was no real conception among ordinary people of a legitimate, sovereign polity known as the Chinese government. Authority didn't really reach that far. Even when Chiang Kai-shek had begun to muster at least a semblance of national unity, it was usually based on trade-offs and compromises with existing 'semi-feudal' leaders. Ordinary people were either cannon fodder or milch cows.

Old habits certainly die hard. The concept of guanxi – help your mates rather than the common good – is directly related, one would think, to a society in which might has for centuries been perceived as the only way to rule, and in which one's own wellbeing was directly related not to common social principles rooted in a legal constitution – but to the fate of one's warlord, one's master, one's Mr. Big.

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