Monday, May 11, 2009

Where are China's Criminal Gangs?

One of my hobbies is researching gangs, usually prison and street gangs. I don't know, maybe it's because of our mutual love of tattoos :-P. But gangs really are a fascinating and horrifying subject, one that is increasing in visibility and veracity every day. Numerous Western documentaries illuminate the international gang culture (Ross Kemp on Gangs, History Channel's Gangland, etc.) but I am always struck by the conspicuous absence of Chinese criminal gangs. And the reason is that China's mainland has a relatively low gang problem and what gangs that do exist hardly make for riveting television.



In theory, China should be swarming with organized and unorganized crime. There is a massive population of young and middle-aged men with little or no education and skills with little prospects for marriage and a prosperous future. Every Western country with similar social demographics has a huge gang problem, and modernized countries like Japan and regions such as Hong Kong have a long embedded history of gang traditions.

But mainland China does not. Of course, there are hordes of surly-faced youth prowling the streets looking for trouble, but this hardly qualifies as a "gang" threat and is usually just a collection of rebellious punks with nothing to do. You don't have cliques lethally guarding their territory, tagging empty walls with gang signs, tattooing themselves with their local area codes, and slinging rock on the street corners. In China, most gangs are underground and rarely visible, and are usually involved such un-glamorous black market affairs such as smuggling, kidnapping, and extortion. No drive-bys, no shootouts with the cops, no prison feuds and other such activities usually associated with gang life.

Of course, most people's perceptions of gang culture have been magnified and glorified by music and the media. Although I spent my childhood in inner city New York, it was a far cry from Compton or El Salvador. And that's not to say that there aren't Chinese gangs outside of China. Every major American city has well-established and vicious Chinese street gangs. They simply lack a significant counterpart in their home country.

Why? There are numerous reasons, and I can only speculate, but I believe there are two substantial factors keeping gang culture from thriving in China. The first is a hesitancy to embrace the life of an outcast, which is what being a gangster means. You're accepted into the brotherhood of your gang but you are scorned by the rest of society, and for a Chinese person, this is a paralyzing thought, even when promised safety and security by a gang. The second factor is the lack of disenfranchised men in urban areas. Sure, there are millions of migrant workers, but they don't stay in the city and roam the streets at night. They do the work, then they go back to their homes in the countryside. It is usually the girls who permanently leave the countryside and relocate to the cities but for the men, it's much harder to survive in the city without an education or specialized skills. And because China is such a large country with massive rural areas, it is hard to centralize enough of such men to create the friction and frustration that spawns gang cultures. And then there's the Chinese mindset of communal property. In the West, we are very keen on personal ownership of territory, even if its just our block. But in China, people don't have this same sense of ownership of a place where they have invested their lives. They have their homes, but it's not their "territory." Most Chinese just want to live in peace, and they do. The territorial Western mentality is just fuel for the gang fire waiting to ignite.

So that's my analysis. I could be totally wrong but I think that China won't have a serious gang problem for a long time, if ever. And this is one reason why I say that China is one of the safest countries on earth.

25 comments:

Yang said...

My uncle told me that there's a gang in China so ferocious and terrifying that no one dares to challenge them. They got members everywhere and they're in the public every day ... they're called the CCP :o

Clark said...

Interesting read. I never thought about gangs in China before.

Anonymous said...

hello its china the cops can just kill just about anyone they want even gang members

马克 said...

No, that's what happens in the Middle East. In China the cops mostly just stand around looking bored.

Anonymous said...

Lots of things, from street food sales to drug sales to gambling dens to poker/mahjong parlors to hookers to construction to shipping... etc. are often controlled by gangs, with various levels of organization. Legit businessmen are also often linked to organized crime. You'll meet organized crime everytime you try to set up a noodle stand in an old neighborhood, buy a packet of heroin, ship a container from Fujian to Nigeria, whatever.

Froh Baum said...

Great blog post! I wonder the same thing all the time. From what my girlfriend from Hangzhou tells me there isn't a visible gang problem at all. In fact, she's not even aware of any gangs in China! Oblivious or in hiding?

That said, there's a gang in the area here (in the Twin Cities, MN) MOD (Menace of Destruction) in which I read is mostly in hiding right now. They don't really graffiti their territory or stand on the streets but instead stay underground until it's time to act.

Anonymous said...

yang is right, haha its not like chinese people dont want to be in gangs, but the problem is that chinese government can and will crush them easily, without the need to go through any judicial system
right before Chinese take back Macau, gang members in Macau threw away their guns and fled, that is how scary chinese government is.
also gangs in asia dont do graffiti

Brett Nelson said...

I'm not surprised that China has no gangs. Taiwan has the strongest police force in the world. Good luck to anyone starting a gang there haha

Anonymous said...

first of all brett nelson, taiwan is not part of china and they have a totally different government system taiwan is democratic and people own thier own property unlike china.hence to my next point, taiwan has plenty of gangsters, but they are more organised and usually white collar like politicians and film producers etc. their underlings are the street thugs, who are the muscle. but in taiwan, u get shot if ur a gang member, so thugs dont hang out very openly in public places. but their are certain areas which are their territories which u better not go if u dont want trouble. ill show u if u wanna see

Froh Baum said...

I'm pretty sure Taiwan is part of China... although they do have their own local government system. Do you consider Tibet and Hong Kong to be independent countries too?

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you found the gang issue so low. I lived In Beijing for about 4 1/2 months in a quite rural area. It was my experience that gangs are rampant. Especially when visiting night clubs -- were owned and operated by gangsters.
It was also my experience, though, that the Chinese are very abrehensive about disclosing negative information about their country and their lives to foreigners. Maybe this could have played a key factor in your lack of "gangsters" evidence.
Interesting read, though.

马克 said...

Oh I'm definitely aware that gangsters exist in China...I live in Xiamen which is right across the street from Taiwan, and interestingly a lot of Taiwanese criminals drift over here to exploit looser laws and greater opportunities. But for a country as large and populous as China, the organized criminal element is less prevalent in society than other countries with similar situations. I certainly don't have a rosy opinion of China's legal situation but I am surprised that it's not worse.

Tian said...

great post! this gave me an idea for paper in Chinese Business Culture class

Anonymous said...

Althou China, has gangs (WICH I C0MPLETELY B-LIEVE CUZ I SAW EM') they are not as threatening and popular as the one in U.S.A (lyk de cribs n vloods in U.S.A etc)!!

Anonymous said...

Did you do some research on that?
A simple google search: thrid result:
http://www.china.org.cn/english/2002/Oct/46544.htm

Anonymous said...

Answer to the general question, of where a are China's gangs; is hidden. China's gangs don't want to stand out or be known. A good criminal doesn't get caught.

Anonymous said...

Where are the gangs? Everywhere you go. Why do you think fake products and prostitution to name some are so open even though there is a "major crackdown" on every city. Wise up.

Anonymous said...

Dude, there are gangs everywhere, everywhere. You walk into a night club, all of the guys in there are in a certain gang. Every facet of life here is run by a gang. Especially in the S.E.Z.

Anonymous said...

I'm doing research on gangs in China and let me tell you, they are EVERYWHERE! I have seen them in action and almost every person I have interviewed has expressed fear of the gang element in their lives. These gangs are especially strong in bars (aka prostitution rings) and they are highly organized. I live in China's northwest and let me tell you, the people are boiling with frustration over the lack of control they have over their lives due to either these gangs or due to the lack/inability of response from the police (who are probably in gang pockets).

Robo said...

Politically, Taiwan is not part of China. They are the ROC (Republic of China) and the PRC (People's Republic of China) respectively. Each claims to be THE official China. There was a civil war in China in the 40's and the KMT(Chinese Nationalist Party) lost the mainland to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) because of heavy losses from fighting the Japanese in WW2 and retreated to Taiwan where they made Taipei their temporary capital of of China. In fact, the Republic of China is the ORIGINAL non-dynastic China formed in 1911 after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Sun Yat Sen was the first president. Communist China regards Taiwan as a renegade province but Taiwan considers Communist China to be usurpers and only gained the mainland because they were not decimated from fighting the Japanese. Before WW2, ROC's army was actually very formidable with many divisions armed and trained by the Nazi German Wehrmacht. In the ROC's official territorial map, the entire mainland China is included. Officially, they are still at a state of civil war. Taiwan is very democratic, probably more democratic than the US. Both governments have been in a stalemate for so long that the prevalent sentiment is to keep the status quo as long as Taiwan does not declare itself as an independant country. As far as gangs go, Taiwan's gangs are very fierce especially in the central parts but petty street crime is not their style. They are heavily armed with automatic weapons and samurai swords. Large scale shootouts with the Police occur fairly regularly and are shown on TV. The United Bamboo Gang is one of Taiwan's biggest gangs with more than 10,000 members.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of gangs in china, they just keep underground and the chinese government keeps this information on the low because they don't want other countries to think that they are 'weak'.

If there were no gangs in china, why would there be movies about them? manga's? rumors? All stories start with a seed of truth. Reading this has given me alot to think about, thankyou for sharing your thoughts, more people should be like you.

Anonymous said...

In China, the government execute people for some of most littlest crimes. I think that's why there aren't public gangs.

Anonymous said...

I think you guys got it backwards. Any gang that exists, exists because the CCP lets them exist. they have a purpose.

perhaps a government official using the gang to smuggle whatever, or do whatever illicit activity.

if you climb up any gang chain of command high enough, I bet you, you'll start seeing government officials.

if you were a government official of a city, wouldn't you only let these prostitution rings and clubs and those things exist because you're somehow profiting from them as well? otherwise why wouldnt you just crush them. im sure the central CCP government would have no problem lending you a hand if you requested it.

Anonymous said...

While travelling in china, i noticed the chinese culture is very triad like.

then i came to a startling realisation.

it's the other way around. triad culture stems from chinese culture.

Gijs van der Giessen said...

But honestly, i think you got it all confused. The 'gangs' in America are just a couple of teenagers running around with guns. They have no businessplan, they don`t conspire, they just kill and smuggle the occasional drugs. Mafia is something different from a street gang. Mainland china`s organized crime is more the mafia kind than the street gang kind. They are two different things.