“Patriotic” triad thugs attack Beijing’s critics in Hong Kong

February 26, 2014

There is renewed suspicion in Hong Kong that Beijing is using hit men from triad criminal gangs to attack outspoken advocates of freedom in its truculent territory, and to intimidate other campaigners for democratic reforms.

The latest example of the Communist Party’s apparent use of triad thugs against troublesome opponents came this morning when Kevin Lau Chun-to, the recently sacked editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, was brutally attacked after he left a restaurant in the city’s Sai Wan Ho district.

In a classic triad-style assault, Lau, 49, was slashed six times with a butcher’s meat cleaver on his back and legs. He is in critical condition in hospital, and even if he survives it is uncertain he will ever be able to walk properly again.

Lau was reassigned last month after Ming Pao took part in an investigation by an international journalists’ organization, which documented the off-shore assets of leading members of China’s Communist Party regime and their families, including President Xi Jinping, his predecessor Hu Jintao, and former premiers Wen Jiabao and Li Peng.

As many of these foreign fortunes are hidden behind Hong Kong-registered companies, it is widely believed Ming Pao journalists played a central role in the investigation.

The attack on Lau came the day after the Chinese government announced it is moving the September summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum summit from Hong Kong to Beijing. Unconvincing reasons were given for the change of venue, cementing the widespread belief the move is to avoid a mass rally coinciding with the summit planned by Hongkongers to demand democratic reform.

China has reluctantly promised to allow Hong Kong’s governor, the Chief Executive, to be chosen by universal suffrage by 2017. But Beijing has made it clear it intends to keep ultimate control of the process by retaining the power to decide on the candidates for Hong Kong’s top administrative position.

At present the Chief Executive is chosen by a committee of 1,200 people, all of whom are beholden to Beijing.

The decision to move the APEC summit comes after years of mass demonstrations in Hong Kong demanding that Beijing keep the promises it made for rapid progress to full democracy before Britain handed the territory back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

On January 1 an estimated 30,000 people marched through the city demanding full power to choose their future chief executives.

Police have become more and more heavy-handed in dealing with these demonstrations, and there is also growing concern about media freedom.

Last Sunday thousands of protesters took part in a demonstration organized by journalists to highlight fears that freedom of expression is being undermined in Hong Kong.

The attack on Kevin Lau is not the first triad-style attack on or threats to leading journalists and media executives in Hong Kong.

In July last year a man rammed a stolen car into the gate of Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, the owner of the relentlessly anti-Beijing Next Media and Apple Daily group. The man left an axe and a machete on Lai’s driveway before speeding off.

The triads have had Lai in their sights before. In 2008 a mainlander with a pistol and bullets was caught in a police roadblock in Mong Kok near Hong Kong’s border with China. He was also found to be carrying personal information about Lai and Hong Kong’s most important political critic of Beijing at the time, Democratic Party leader Martin Lee Chu-ming.

The mainlander was jailed for 16 years for plotting to kill the two men and subsequently 11 triad members were tried and jailed for their parts in the plot.

But today’s attack on Lau is most like the September 1998 assault on the highly popular radio commentator Albert Cheng Jing-han. Cheng was leaving his radio studio, where his morning phone-in show, Teacup in a Storm, regularly attracted audiences of a million or more, when he was attacked by two men wielding butchers’ cleavers.

Just like Lau, Cheng was slashed across the back and legs six times. It took over four hours of surgery to sew Cheng back together and he spent the next two years recovering.

The links between the Chinese Communist Party and the triads were already well-established when, in the mid 1990s, former Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji described them as “patriotic organzations.”

That was indeed how the triads started in the 17th century, as secret societies fighting against the alien Manchu Qing Dynasty. But for hundreds of years they have been nothing more than criminal gangs involved in everything from drug trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, people trafficking, gambling and any other illegal activity that makes money.

In the early years of Communist rule in China after 1949, Beijing was as intent on destroying the triads, who had been associated with the former Kuomintang government, as they were the edifices of capitalism. But Beijing developed links with the Hong Kong triads after its bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-reform demonstrations in 1989 when Hong Kong was still a British colony.

Many of the leaders of the Tiananmen protests managed to escape arrest and get out of China in an underground operation called Yellow Bird, which was largely organized by democracy supporters in Hong Kong.

In return for acting as eyes, ears and muscle for Beijing in Hong Kong, triad leaders were allowed into the mainland, where they quickly established profitable economic links with Communist Party officials.

Triads now have tentacles reaching throughout China. It is well known in China that police and Communist Party officials regularly use local triad thugs to attack and intimidate troublesome citizens who demonstrate or otherwise petition for their rights.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com