Some two decades ago I met a former magazine editor who had written something that displeased one of Hong Kong's notorious triad gangs.
At the time that I met him, this distinguished editor had left his editing job and gone to work at a university in Hong Kong. I came to consider him a friend.
But the triads have long memories.
According to my friend, two unidentified men who appeared likely to be triad members paid a visit to the man's office. One of them restrained him while the other pulled out a meat cleaver, or a "chopper," as they're called in Hong Kong, and chopped off several of his fingers.
When I met him, the editor calmly explained to me that he still had one good hand and could write on a computer. He was calm as he spoke of the price that he'd paid for doing a job that he loved. I told him that I wasn't going to write about our conversation because I didn't want to cause him any more trouble than he had already had.
Now, many years later, I'm reminded of that conservation because of the evidence that pro-Beijing triad gangs in Hong Kong have attacked a number of pro-democracy protesters in recent months.
Perhaps the most dramatic incident allegedly involving triad members occurred on July 21 when dozens of masked men carrying rods attacked protesters at Hong Kong's Yuen Long train station. According to a Bloomberg news report, the police were at that moment nowhere to be seen.
But police officers later said that they had arrested some of the men and found that they had links to triad crime syndicates.
It's impossible to estimate how many triad gangs or members have been involved in attacking pro-democracy demonstrators, but it is clear thanks to witnesses and some police arrests that they've established a significant presence in the midst of the city's turmoil.
The triads have a long history
The triads first became widely known during the Qing dynasty, China's last imperial dynasty, which lasted from 1644 until 1912. The Qing dynasty was led by the Manchus, a non-Chinese people who lived in China's northeast, a region later called Manchuria. The Qing dynasty was preceded by the Ming Dynasty.
The triads first began to organize as part of a patriotic movement to restore Ming rule. But they gradually turned to crime, including the sale of drugs, such as opium, heroin, and cocaine. They gained control of gambling and prostitution rings. Much like mafia groups, members are expected to regard each other as blood brothers.
According to some accounts, the triangular triad symbol dated back to the Society of Heaven and Earth created in the 1700s. The triad was used in flags and banners as part of the patriotic movement
When the British ruled Hong Kong as a colony from 1841 to 1941 and then again after a Japanese occupation of several years until a handover of the colony to China in 1997, secret society members such as the triads were imprisoned under British law.
The British apparently referred to some of them as triads because of the triangular symbol that was used by the gangs.
During the current chaos, the triads are only one relatively small part of a multi-faceted situation. But the danger exists that they are now gaining a new and unwarranted lease on life even if the situation stabilizes.
The triads must become part of any investigation as to why Hong Kong has now reached what the Financial Times correspondent Jamil Anderlini calls the city's descent into "tribalism."
Commenting on what he calls a "double standard" embraced by the Hong Kong police, Anderlini says that "members of criminal triad gangs who attack anti-government protesters have been dealt with incredibly leniently, while anyone who looks like they might be a demonstrator is at risk of being beaten unconscious."
As a result, he says, the latest polls show that 52 percent of Hong Kong's people have zero trust in the police, up from 6.5 percent who didn't trust the police when the protests began five months ago.
"There are still many decent police officers," he says in an article published on Nov. 13, "but brutal tactics, contempt for the general public, and direct targeting of journalists are now the norm."
Not a single police officer has faced charges for any of the many examples of the unnecessary use of force. At the same time, thousands of protesters have been arrested.
And then there is this: Several police officers were caught on camera celebrating and laughing at the death of one young protester. He was a 22-year-old university student who died on Friday, Nov. 8, after falling from a car park near a police clearing operation.
The death of Chow Tsz-lok prompted what Anderlini described as "an orgy of violence" perpetrated by protesters on the streets that began over the weekend and lasted into Monday, Nov. 11, when a policeman was filmed shooting a protester with live ammunition.
As The New York Times reported on Nov. 9, anger with the police was already running high because of the force's widespread use of tear gas, pepper spray, and batons against protesters.
A key demand of the protesters has been an independent investigation of the police's use of force.
The protests in Hong Kong were first triggered by a proposal that was introduced in April by Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, that would have allowed criminal suspects and Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China.
Opponents of the bill said that it might be used to silence China's critics or to send dissidents to China, where they would face a Communist Party-controlled legal system and unfair trials.
This was not the way things were supposed to evolve when Britain in July 1997 transferred sovereignty over its onetime colony back to China under a "one-country, two systems" arrangement that was designed to preserve Hong Kong's traditional freedoms for the next half century.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.
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