World·CBC Explains

Why triad gangsters may have attacked pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters

Hong Kong police continue to investigate the motive behind a violent attack against pro-democracy protesters at a subway station. Some of the attackers are believed to have connections to triads. CBC News explains who the triads are and their possible connection to government officials.

Dozens injured in attack at subway

Men in white T-shirts with poles are seen in Yuen Long after pro-democracy demonstrators were attacked at a train station in Hong Kong on July 22, 2019. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Hong Kong police continue to investigate the motive behind a violent attack against pro-democracy protesters at a subway station in the Yuen Long neighbourhood over the weekend.

Some of the attackers were masked individuals, wearing white shirts and armed with rods, and are believed to have connections to triads, powerful organized crime syndicates in Hong Kong. 

The attack, which left dozens injured, followed the latest pro-democracy rally that day where more than 100,000 people demonstrated. That protest took a violent turn as police launched tear gas at protesters. During that protest, some demonstrators directed their ire at China, pelting its office in Hong Kong with eggs, spray-painting a wall and defacing the Chinese national emblem

Yet some pro-democracy activists are accusing government officials of being behind the suspected triad attacks, accusations authorities have rejected as groundless.

CBC News explains who the triads are and their possible connection to government officials.

What are triads?

Triads are organized criminal syndicates founded in the 17th century in China that have a "strong patriotic doctrine and emphasis on such values as loyalty, righteousness, secrecy and brotherhood," says T. Wing Lo, a professor in the social and behavioural sciences department at the City University of Hong Kong.

But over the past two decades, according to Wing Lo, who specializes in Chinese organized crime and triad societies, many of their rituals and secret initiation ceremonies have been simplified or abandoned. Meanwhile, the traditions of "brotherhood and loyalty have more or less disappeared or have been modified," he co-wrote in an article titled: How Triad Societies Respond to Socioeconomic Change.

Some of the triad societies include the 14K, the Sun Yee On and the Wo Shing Wo. They are involved in different forms of violence and street crime in Hong Kong. Those crimes include extortion, blackmail, protection rackets, illicit internet gambling, narcotic trafficking and loan sharking.

Medical workers help a protester in pain from tear gas fired by police officer on a street in Hong Kong on Sunday. (Bobby Yip/ The Associated Press)

Triad societies have always been a problem in Hong Kong but one that was well-contained during the British administration, Steve Vickers, the former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police criminal intelligence bureau, said in an email.

"Unfortunately, during the period since the 1997 handover, the Hong Kong authorities have not cracked down on them to the same extent as the former British administration did."

Why are triad gangs suspected of being involved in the attacks?

Hong Kong police say the attackers were part of local organized crime groups and that some of those arrested had "triad backgrounds."

There's also been a history of these groups attacking democracy protesters going back to the Umbrella Revolution of 2014, where Hong Kong students staged protests against proposed electoral reforms.

What is their possible connection to government officials?

Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia Project at the Lowy Institute think-tank in Australia, said that it's well-known "that in the past the Chinese government, the Communist Party, has worked with these groups in Hong Kong and similar thuggish gangs across China as unofficial enforcers."

There have also been claims that triads are very patriotic toward China and willing to work, through Beijing's United Front Work Department, with "friends of the [Communist] Party against its enemies," Bland said.

"This is the classic sort of thing where so long as you align with the common enemy, they're willing to co-operate on certain things. But of course it's also an uneasy relationship."

"Thugs for hire" is a common phenomenon in mainland China and across a wide range of countries, Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said in an email.

"Governments outsource violence to third-party agents for 'plausible deniability,' " she said.

Bland said the government can use such gangs for hire to evict people from land they may want to redevelop or to intimidate political dissidents.

In this image taken from video footage, white-shirted men attack a man dressed in a black shirt at a subway station in Hong Kong on July 21, 2019. (The Stand News via AP Video/The Associated Press)

"You can always say well, that wasn't the government, that was just these gangs. So it's useful, that plausible deniability," he said.

During the Umbrella Revolution of 2014, Hong Kong legislator James To said he believed the Hong Kong government "has used organized, orchestrated forces and even triad gangs in [an] attempt to disperse citizens."

Who else might have connections to the attackers?

In this case, the attackers could possibly have been hired by business interests who, like the government, want the protests to end, Ong said.

The Yuen Long region, where the attacks took place, has a long history of triad activity particularly with 14 K and Wo Shing Wo subgroups, Vickers said. 

In the last couple of weeks, there has been considerable tension between protesters and local businessmen who are very opposed to the demonstrators and their activities, Vickers said. 

"So the question of who really 'pulled the trigger' remains open," he said

As well, the area is home to communities that are relatively pro-Beijing politically because of the close proximity and because of the number of residents who have come there from mainland China, said Zhixing Zhang, senior East Asia analyst for geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.

"We don't know the exact connections between the local police or Hong Kong government or let alone Beijing with these type of gangsters," Zhang said.

"What is clear is that this attack is organized and they are attacking the pro-democracy camps, that the strategy or a goal is to intimidate those anti-government protesters"

Why are the Hong Kong police being criticized?

Members of the pro-democracy movement have accused the Hong Kong police of either ignoring the attacks or being complicit in these actions by not doing enough to protect people when they came under attack.

"There's certainly big questions for the police to answer over why they didn't try and stop these attacks," Bland said. "The accusation is that the police were either complicit or they looked the other way.

"It does look very suspicious and worrying to many people in Hong Kong, the sense that the police aren't willing or weren't able to defend individuals who came under attack from organized crime groups."

With files from The Associated Press