In the past few years, the American public has been exposed to a number of shocking accounts of the Chinese underworld’s gruesome human smuggling activities—young women held in bondage to work as prostitutes, kidnapping and torture, illegal immigrants stumbling from decaying foreign ships onto U.S. shores. It is easy to see why a book with the sensational title The Dragon Syndicates found an American publisher (it was originally issued in Great Britain). It is harder to fathom how it will capture the attention of American readers, for it is a poorly constructed and tediously written book.
The book’s main problem is that the author fails to clearly define the “Triads” of his title, which are essentially criminal organizations bound by the sworn loyalty of their members, as distinct from other forms of traditional Chinese social organizations based on familial, geographic, or occupational affiliation. Booth admits that the use of the English term “triads” itself is problematic, since no equivalent is used in the Chinese, but nonetheless applies the term to disparate Chinese groups that share organizational structure, rituals, and the value of loyalty, but otherwise have little in common. According to Booth’s classification, political groups like the Heaven and Earth Society, for instance, which stood for the restoration of the Ming Dynasty, are lumped together with the Red Gang, a criminal organization that controlled Shanghai’s trade, labor, and financial markets.
Booth is too ambitious in his attempt to present the phenomenon of Chinese Triads throughout some 3000 years of Chinese history. He is not a historian of China, and his indiscriminate reliance on haphazardly gathered English-language secondary sources makes for a rambling, slapdash historical narrative. His inability to distinguish between legend, myth, and documented history often lands him in a trap set by the very organizations he describes, who veil their shady dealings in stories of patriotic origins, heroic traditions, moral righteousness, and past glory. With this shaky historical evidence, Booth attempts to present the Triads as a worldwide cultural phenomenon. “For centuries they have been an integral and unequivocally inseparable part of Chinese society,” he maintains. “No matter where these migrants have established their communities, Triad societies have set themselves up.” He wants us to believe that Chinese criminal activities are bound to increase with a rising Chinese presence in our midst, for wherever there are Triads there is crime.
Booth fails to point out that criminal organizations such as the Triads can exist only with the tacit agreement of law enforcement. Historically, in China, this was the case because the central government had no incentive to administrate below the county level and allowed self-appointed local leaders to take control of affairs. In Chinese communities in America today, police don’t interfere because racially distinct and isolated urban ghettos have been left under the control of rich and powerful elements. Booth should know that ordinary people submit to Triad protection only when no protection by official representatives of law and order is available to them—which is often the case when a government benefits from the activities of the Triads. A case in point was the British colonial government’s tolerance of the labor rackets in Singapore and Hong Kong, which maintained high productivity and labor peace. The Dutch, the French, and the Americans alike colluded with the crime syndicates when meddling in the politics of Southeast Asia.
Despite these examples, in the end Booth still blames the success of the Triads on their victims—the Chinese who are not willing to report on the crime in their midst, as though their silence were a culturally conditioned ploy and a clever justification for inaction. This attitude is enforced by Booth’s heavy and injudicious reliance on police sources (and most likely by the fact that Booth’s father was once Royal Hong Kong Police Chief Inspector). It also smacks of racism. Although Booth himself suggests that the authorities could eliminate organized crime if they wanted to (his father’s appointment is the featured case in point), he ultimately does not expand on this idea. It would inevitably make him into a critic of his father’s colonial administration, and deny him the punch line of his main thesis that there is no end to the propagation of Chinese-controlled crime.
American readers would be much better served had the author attempted to understand the current Chinese crime phenomenon in the proper context of the expanding and exceedingly unregulated global financial and labor markets. But Booth seems unwilling to tackle the issue of the globalization of ethnic organized crime—and this phenomenon is not limited to the Chinese—apparently because that angle would destroy the alarmingly sinister message of his book.