Chinese People Smuggling (Part I - text)

By Mark Craig
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 10, Number 2 (Winter 1999-2000)
Issue theme: "Ober borders: gateways for criminals and terrorists"


Illegal migration from the People's Republic of China is a major cause of concern to many countries around the world, particularly within the First World.

Organized Chinese crime syndicates have facilitated the illegal movement of millions of Chinese post-1978, generating billions of dollars in income.

The social construction of diaspora communities has undergone significant changes as new political elites emerge, boundaries are expanded, and underworld activities broadened.

Governments, for various reasons, have been slow to appreciate the magnitude of the problem, with many appearing consistently Delphic and noncommittal on the issue.

As a consequence Chinese organized crime is now truly a global phenomenon diaspora com-munities are swollen with the less fortunate and educated exploitation and victimization are rampant; underworld economies are booming; communities are polarized; and authorities in the main appear conspicuously devoid of solutions.


Although scientific research on the specific issue of Chinese people smuggling is wanting, from a sociological perspective some understanding of this phenomenon is immediately possible.

All communities have sub-cultures and an array of actors involved in anti-social or deviant behavior. In my view it is not so much the fact individual actors may become involved in illegal activities - because to some extent this is to be expected, but that illegal Chinese immigrants, particularly the Fujianese, appear anecdotally disproportionally represented within the Chinese organized crime milieu.

To understand the globalization of Chinese organized crime one needs to uncover the pattern of order underlying empirical observations. This is easier said than done. The two basic approaches to viewing and classifying the various events of the social world, according to their attributes or their relationships, will alone not yield satisfactory comprehension of structure.

Of significance, I would argue, is the relationship between three social actors globalization, illegal migration, and organized crime, not the actors' intrinsic characteristics.

Although contemporary Chinese organized crime activities could be described in terms of fluid, entrepreneurial, even amorphous entities, the globalization of Chinese organized crime very much belies this simplicity. But, in seeking to uncover fundamental social positions, as defined by observable relations among social actors, one must undertake a structural analysis of a complete network.

This is difficult but not impossible. We know, for example, the majority of Chinese illegal immigrants in such localities as New York City come from the Fuzhou area of Fujian province.(1) What we don't know quantitatively is the measure of this proportion involved in organized crime. When we obtain these data we will be able to infer a structural relationship. This relational measure will subsequently capture the emergent properties of a social system that cannot be measured by simply aggregating the attributes of individuals.


Deng Xiaoping's 1978 Open Door Policy was really the catalyst for what would become the third major migration of Chinese since the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. This migration, like previous migrations, was fundamentally an illegal exodus consistent with the tumultuousness of the era of social and economic change ushered in by this policy.

Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader, was if nothing else a pragmatist. He was the principal architect and visionary responsible for dismantling the bamboo curtain. As a political realist he understood the issues and gave the facts meaning through reason. Clearly conscious of China's need to modernize, Deng marshaled diaspora communities to invest in their ancestral homelands. This in turn provided an information conduit to the outside world.

In the intervening years millions of Chinese, mostly from the southern coastal provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, and Zhejiang, illegally made their way abroad with underworld facilitation.

Elements of the underworld have been clandestinely utilized universally as agents of numerous government policies, and this in itself is nothing new. Successive governments in China have also maintained close relationships with the secret societies, viewing them in the main as political and social actors - instruments of the political elite. But when Deng publicly conferred de jure recognition of some triads, legitimizing them through the often invoked, but nonetheless fallacious patriotic raison d'etre, the message was quite unambiguous.

Deng's axioms 'it does not matter what color the cat is as long as it catches the mice' and 'to get rich is glorious' were not lost on the triads, whom he enlisted in 1979 to provide protection on his visit to the United States. Allegorically this was very significant as the Minister for Public Security, Tao Siju, was to subsequently signify, in 1993, when he revealed 'triads are not all bad, some are quite patriotic.'(2)

As a consequence triad capital poured into China, secret societies mushroomed, and the people-smuggling business, fashioned on the old credit-ticket system, became the life-rope for a cross-section of society, the demography of which comprised a destitute underclass seeking respite from economic hardship, the anti-social and criminal milieu, and segments of the elite, including the sons of cadres.


Early Chinese emigration first occurred in pre-modem China, and covered the dynasties from two and three thousand years ago to the mid-Qing dynasty in the late 18th century. During this period Chinese mainly emigrated to Asian countries, particularly South East Asia. The subsequent period covered the decline of Imperial China through to the Republican period (the 19th century to the late 1940s), when Chinese migrated to most parts of the world; much of which involved the 'coolie trade.'(3)

By the mid-19th century central authority in China was very much undermined. War- lordism prevailed and banditry was commonplace. Continuous conflicts such as the Opium War of 1838-42, the great Taiping Rebellion 1848-65, and the second British-Chinese War 1856-8, all served to disrupt social order. The spectacular population increase of the mid-Qing period (it doubled between 1749-1851)(4) resulted in severe economic dislocation for those endangered by declining man-land ratios, forcing many to migrate out of their indigenous communities. From this point onward, China's experience was one of societal breakdown, dynastic decline and collapse, imperial-istic penetration, armed invasion, and civil war.

Unlike other immigration programs, such as Indian immigration to Malaya, which was govern-ment-sponsored, Chinese migration was largely a private enterprise. Not only was it private, it was not officially supported because prior to 1893 Chinese migration was illegal, with the exception of the rights obtained in 1860 by the British government to import labor into its colonies and dependencies.(5) One of the principal ports for the recruitment of such labor was Amoy (Xiamen), the Hokkien-speech area of Fujian province. The first shipload from there arrived in Sydney in 1848, and California in 1854.(6) Nevertheless, most prospective migrants were unaware of this fact and government officials still regarded them as illegal migrants. Because of this, and the desire to pursue maximum profit from their human cargoes, the traders developed an effective control system through co-operation with the secret societies, which were dialectically organized and engaged in an array of predacious activities in the Treaty Ports.

Therefore, despite repressive edicts forbidding emigration, millions of Chinese migrated to Southeast Asia before and during the European interlude.

Having begun in the mid-19th century as a direct result of the Western impact during its industrial expansion phase, the gold rushes and railroad booms (Australia, Canada, the USA, South Africa, and New Zealand), Chinatowns were supplemented by the 'first coolie trade' that emerged when slavery was abandoned (Fiji, South and Central America).(7) In the early 20th century further migration was halted by racially discriminatory laws.(8) Reduced illegal migration continued which, although quantitatively unimportant, played a crucial political role as it ensured the Chinatowns remained as closed, under-policed communities dominated by secret societies controlling illegal migration. As secret societies controlled the export of illegal migrant coolie labor from China, it was not difficult for Chinatown's secret societies to assume the debts of the coolies through the tongs. Secret society- dominated tongs, such as the Che[e] Kung Tong very quickly acquired a large number of indentured coolies whom it placed in employment, extorted, and subsequently utilized in their criminal workforce. This proved very prosperous and other tongs quickly followed suit.

By the late 19th century the secret societies were significant and powerful criminal organizations. Astonishingly they numbered in China (according to Dr. Sun Yat-sen,(9) himself a triad member) an estimated 35 million members.(10)

In North America, secret society-dominated tongs proliferated, profiting heavily from an underground illegal immigrant-supplied economy and the business activities that flourished in this bachelor society - prostitution, gambling, narcotics, and extortion. Consequently, competition for control became fierce, with the crescendo of violence culminating in ongoing 'tong wars.' In one year (1909), 350 Chinese were said to have died in New York City alone.(11)


The people-smuggling market is particularly interesting when consideration is given to social structure issues within the Chinatowns. Certainly this market could be interpreted as a sound and indeed rational economic model of capitalist enterprise - but it is the actors associated with the sustainability, and in some cases the advancement, of the Chinatowns organized crime phenomena and the nexus to illegal migration that presents a challenge.

Daniel Bell (1953) argued that organized crime is a way for new immigrants and minorities to gain material wealth and power in a capitalist society. Bell's 'queer ladder' hypothesis may provide one possible explanation for the apparent increase in Chinese underworld activities within Chinatowns, particularly when the dynamics of social order are taken into consideration.

There are two layers of social order in Chinatowns legitimate and illegitimate. The legitimate social order regulates political, economic, and social behavior, while the illegitimate social order oversees criminal activities.(12) Illegitimate order in Chinatowns is not inconsequential and demographics, in terms of commercial activities, are closely regulated in both the legitimate and informal economies. Accordingly, as Chinatown communities increase in size, whether through illegal or legal immigration, so too do illegitimate activities. Thus, as Chinatowns expand further scope is created for illegitimate activities. Of course, this does not imply Chinese immigrants are inherently pernicious - simply that Chinatown life is subject to finely balanced social order incorporating legitimate and illegitimate activities. However, this social order requires meticulous maintenance and can be severely disrupted when new actors disregard convention.

In the United States, in the wake of the Immigration Act of 1965 which ended the discriminatory national origins provision established in 1924, the Chinese population steadily grew. The semblance of order remained relatively unchanged; however in actuality the Chinatowns' self-regulating social controls were rapidly deteriorating. The major problem was the new immigrants, particularly those from Hong Kong, who were disrupting the status quo by attempting to establish their own criminal enterprises.(13)

The Wah Ching was one such criminal group to emerge post-1965 in San Francisco. From its origin in 1966 as a street gang, the Wah Ching developed into a sophisticated criminal organization with multiple international crime connections. During the 1970s and 1980s they became an organization that controlled most of the criminal vices in San Francisco's Chinatown and Los Angeles' Chinese communities. Their activities are not unlike early Mafia activities during the 1940s and 1950s which relied on protection and extortion rackets as their mainstay.

During that time there may have been as many as 200 Wah Ching members and 500 criminal associates in California. Although primarily based in San Francisco, they developed strong international associations with Chinese organized crime groups and formed close ties with the San Yee On and 14K triads in Hong Kong.

Typical criminal activities of the Wah Ching include extortion, burglary, gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, narcotics trafficking, robbery, and murder. Their operations eventually acquired legitimate businesses including real estate investments, jewelry stores, restaurants, night-clubs, travel agencies, and ventures associated with the entertainment industry. By the early 1990s, most Wah Ching members and associates had been consolidated into the Wo Hop To triad.(14)

In the intervening years, illegal immigrants, many coerced or forced,(15) have swollen the ranks of established gangs by the thousands, and in many cases formed their own new organizations. They have not only successfully established their own identities but have sought the patronage of the tongs. For example, in New York City the major tongs are all associated with gangs. The Hip Sing is supported by the Flying Dragons, the On Leong by the Ghost Shadows, the Tung On by the Tung On Gang, and the Fukien American Association by the Fuk Ching. The On Leong and Hip Sing also sponsor gangs in numerous other cities in the United States, including Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Dallas.(16) Another Manhattan tong, the Canal Business Association, is supported by the Canal Street Boys, usually referred to by their preferred name Born To Kill (BTK)(17)

Illegal Chinese immigrants have in some cases formed cohesive criminal entities, in the form of street gangs, and capitalized on the lucrative business of people-smuggling and subsequent post facto criminal activities, including kidnapping, extortion, and murder. The Fuk Ching gang is one example. With a membership in New York City estimated by some to be around 500,(18) and supported by the Fukienese Association, this gang has grown from a disparate group of illegal Fujianese immigrants in 1983 to a sophisticated organized crime entity, and organizer of large people-smuggling operations such as the ill-fated Golden Venture. On June 6, 1993, the impact of Chinese people smuggling was dramatically highlighted when the freighter Golden Venture ran aground off Queens, New York, carrying 300 illegal immigrants. In the melee that followed, at least ten people drowned attempting to swim to shore.(19)

In the contemporary period the demographics of Chinese communities around the world have changed significantly and can be directly traced to the illegal mass-migration from Fujian province. This province has long been an outward-looking area populated by people active in sea trade and smuggling. In the Fuzhou area two counties, Changle(20) and Lianjiang, are the two major locations from which the majority of illegal immigrants emanate. Although a systematic history of secret society-managed illegal migration has endured for centuries, it was perhaps events in the 1930s which socialized today's migrants to the high costs associated with illegal migration.

Changle and Lianjiang counties are both famous for producing seamen and earlier this century many signed on with U.S. ships. In New York scores jumped ship, working long enough to return rich men, and in the 1930s shipping companies began demanding a $500 bond to prevent such desertions. Thus acquiescence to significant capital dispensation in return for economic opportunities abroad as illegal migrants became a norm.(21)

Today the illegal migrants spend up to $50,000 for passage to North America, and slightly lesser amounts for other Western destinations from Europe to Australia.


Perspectives differ internationally but, generally, one could argue without too much difficulty that illegal immigration is not a new phenomenon, has deleterious affects upon host societies, and is totally undesirable.

But some governments are slow to accept reality. Take the case of Australia, which has finally admitted 'illegal immigration is an increasing threat to Australia.'(22)

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet reported 771 boat arrivals in the 1998-99 financial year with an additional 1941 air arrivals in the same period. The majority of boat arrivals were from Fujian province.(23) Of course, these are only the detected arrivals - no one knows how many have slipped through.

Speaking from my own perspective on the Australian government's reading of this issue, I can't help but lament the almost systematic ineptitude shown as this phenomenon has unfolded. Consistently over the years government agencies have been in a mode of total denial, insisting such issues were something Australia need not concern itself with. The didactic arrogance of some responsible authorities, who professed to be prescient by virtue of their mandated responsibilities and subsequent alleged intelligence capabilities, is utterly deplorable given the predicament Australia now faces.

And what might that predicament be? A vexing and awkward question, no doubt, but this is no time for punctilious abrogation of responsibility. The fact is, quite simply, Australia reacted far too late and does not have the infrastructure in place to prevent future illegal migration. Worse still, it has been proven impotent in dismantling Chinese organized crime operations within the country and has no comprehension of the issues within China, particularly Fujian province. Australia established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1972 but still does not have good sources of information pertinent to this issue. Australia's diplomatic comprehension is driven by reactive policies from Australia, not from informed analyses on the ground in China or elsewhere.

Globalization is something the Australian government understands with respect to certain sectors, but it has failed miserably on the organized crime front.

Without a doubt, whether Australia chooses to acknowledge reality or not, it will experience the same problems found in North America and Europe - specifically, an unprecedented increase in Chinese organized crime activity. This will evolve as criminal stakeholders, fueled by an influx of illegal migrants, seek to service burgeoning underworld economies and will manifest itself in traditional vice activities (prostitution, gambling dens, narcotics), with its associated protection rackets, extortion operations, and the fundamental mainstay of the illegal Chinese underworld - kidnapping for ransom.

However, there is only so much of the pie to go around. As with North America and Europe, illegal Chinese immigrants in Australia will, for numerous reasons, be drawn to or forced into crime. And this will result in only one outcome - violence. For fear of appearing melodramatic, let us review a few salient facts.


San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest Cantonese immigrant community in America. The criminal gangs within the illegitimate social order are like-wise preponderantly Cantonese. However, they are now facing considerable pressure from the disparate illegal Fujianese gangsters. The violent antecedents of the Cantonese-speaking gangs will ensure Fujianese- Cantonese machinations materialize through violent conflict.

In 1977 the Cantonese gained some notoriety for their callousness when the Joe Boys shot sixteen people, including five fatally, in a San Francisco restaurant called the Golden Dragon. Similar scenes were enacted in 1982 in Seattle's Chinatown when thirteen patrons of a gambling den were gunned down and murdered at the tables, and again in 1991 when five people were murdered in a Boston gambling den.

But the Fujianese are tough. They appear to be more resilient and apt to resort to violence in the first instant. They are also highly mobile and capable of harnessing powerful connections within the underground illegal Fujianese communities across North America, and further afield if necessary.

In New York City, the old Cantonese guard has given way to the Fujianese, much to the dismay of the Chinese community. This is a direct consequence of the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who arrived in the 1980s.

The transition throughout North America's Chinese communities has been extremely violent with hundreds of reported homicides and an unknown number of unreported homicides. Many of those that go unreported are of gang members who simply disappear, or illegal immigrants who never officially existed in the first place. This was highlighted when the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) formed a task force to investigate the Flying Dragons, a vicious gang comprised of illegal Fujianese. In October 1995, thirty-nine members were indicted under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for numerous kidnappings (mostly unreported), extortions, immigrant smuggling, and thirteen murders the authorities had no previous knowledge of.(24)

The Flying Dragons are an enduring group who emerged from the waves of illegal Fujianese to protect the business interests of the Hip Sing tong. They, like their Cantonese counterparts, built their reputation and carved out their territory through unprecedented violence. On 23 December, 1982 they set the tone in the Golden Star restaurant by opening fire, killing three gang members and wounding eight others.

The Fujianese now completely dominate life in New York's Chinatown and their gangsters monopolize the illegal migration rackets, worth in excess of $3.5 billion annually. According to the INS, throughout the 1980s approximately 100,000 mainland Chinese, predominately Fujianese, were smuggled into the United States annually.(25)

Further north, in Toronto and Vancouver, similar scenarios are unfolding.

Within the literature quantitative research specifically on the involvement of Chinese illegal immigrants in crime pre-migration and post-immigration is difficult to locate. Therefore one cannot categorically assume all illegal immigrants from China have criminal tendencies although clearly they have little regard for the rule of law, both in China and abroad.

We do know, however, from anecdotal evidence in North America and Europe, that a certain percentage will become involved in serious criminal activities - much of which will invariably involve undue violence.


This short paper has attempted to elucidate some of the key sociological factors associated with Chinese illegal migration and organized crime. To reiterate, illegal migration is not a new phenomenon for the Chinese, nor is the involvement of the underworld.

Officials within the government of China are very much in complicity in the sanctioning of illegal migration. This, I would argue, covers the entire social, political and economic spectrum.

To a lesser extent foreign governments must accept some responsibility for the problem. The United States was the primary target of the major exoduses but was very slow to specifically address the issue. Other countries such as Canada are only now coming to terms with the magnitude of the problem in the wake of 600-plus Fujfanese arriving in Vancouver over the past three months. But Canada has yet to demonstrate any cogent or rational policies which one could envisage alleviating the situation. Australia, too, must take responsibility for avoiding the issue many years ago when it was apparent Australia was an attractive market for the people- smugglers. As a result Australia is now driven by policy making on the run and is totally reactive and unprepared for the next stage in the cycle - the rise in Chinese organized crime within its borders.

About the author

Mark Craig is on the Faculty of Law, Department of Justice Studies, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. This paper was given at the 1999 Social Contract Writers Workshop.

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