Chinese Triads
(Image: Unsplash/ Michał Parzuchowski)

Over the past week or so there have been allegations that Chinese organised crime syndicates, known as triads, are operating in Australia in a major way.

The allegations have been raised specifically about ASX-listed Crown Resorts, saying that “junkets” — visits arranged by businesses contracted to supply the high roller gamblers who keep the global casino money machine going around — are run by triads.

Crown has denied these claims. But this is far from the first time we’ve heard reports of triads operating in Australia. Neither the Australian authorities — from politicians, to bureaucrats in the Department of Immigration, to the Australian Federal Police — nor the board of directors of Crown Resorts should be wholly surprised. 

What’s in a name?

The origins of the word “triad” date back to the Latin trias, which means a grouping of three and was taken up by French, Spanish and English. These underground societies, which in Cantonese are often called “black societies” and “dark societies”, originally started as one society, formed in the 17th century in an attempt to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Over time, the society split and divided into many smaller (and often competing groups).

In the 20th century, after the bulk were chased out of mainland China after the Communist Party took power in 1949, they congregated in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. In recent decades they have been operating on both sides of the Hong Kong and Macau borders.

Triads also refer to Chinese organised crime syndicates in countries with significant Chinese populations, including most countries in Southeast Asia (such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia), the US, Canada and of course, Australia.

Triads and gambling

In 1996, a major academic study entitled “Triad Organised Crime in Macau Casinos: Extra-Legal Governance and Entrepreneurship” was undertaken by Hong Kong City University researchers T. Wing Lo and Sharon Kwok. It found that triads dominated VIP gambling rooms in Macau at a time when Crown Resorts still had its joint venture with Lawrence Ho’s Melco Group. The academics interviewed triad members, police, government officials, and casino VIP room operators.

It also found that the triads had extensive networks with mainland and local officials, junkets, high rollers, investors and criminals.

The report identified junket operators as the “main drivers of economic profits for the triads and are responsible for running VIP rooms in Macau”, as reported in the South China Morning Post.

The report goes on to say that:

The VIP-room operations are still dominated by triads to date. But they have readjusted their traditional intrusive role and reinvented harmonious business strategies to suit the market reality.

The report noted that casino management was fully aware of the connections between VIP operators and the triads despite publicly denying it. “We were given the chance to run a VIP room because my brother-in-law had a reputation in the triad underworld,” it quoted one former VIP contractor as saying.

Notably, the study found that triads had been expanding into casino operations outside of Macau.

Triads and Australia

There has long been evidence of Hong Kong triads operating in Australia, dating back decades. In 1988 the National Crime Authority’s (NCA) then chairperson, Justice Stewart said:

Broadly speaking, the authority’s investigations confirm earlier assessments that Chinese criminal elements in Australia have formed criminal associations, modelled to some extent on the traditional Chinese triad secret societies such as exist in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia.

In 1995, there was an Australian Parliamentary inquiry into Asian organised crime in Australia that found:

The attention of Australian law enforcement agencies has focused on Chinese organised criminal activity in relation to a wide range of matters, including drug importation and distribution, illegal gambling, illegal prostitution, extortion, immigration malpractice and money laundering.

Justice Stewart told the inquiry that the NCA had been unable to investigate Chinese triads due to a lack of resources.

As Australian criminal enforcement agencies and regulators have been increasingly focused on transnational crime in the past decade, the AFP has had a steadily increasing presence in Southeast Asia.

Its officers were initially focused on both drug and people smuggling, and were initially focused on two of the main exit points for this trade into Australia — namely Thailand and southern China which included the neighbouring cities of Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau. The AFP has been heavily focused on drug trafficking out of southern China, so it would be of particular interest that triad gangs have been involved in the violence against people participating in the ongoing street protests in Hong Kong.

The AFP opened its first representative post in Beijing in 1999, and in 2007 began operations in Guangzhou where Crikey understands most of its Asian operations are now centred.

“Since 2017 we have seized more than $18 million worth of property on behalf of Chinese authorities related to Chinese people in Australia involved in illegal activities, primarily money laundering,” AFP Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan said in an April 2019 media release.

Government ‘action’ so far

It’s been hard to glean too much concern from the federal government about the Crown allegations. Attorney-General Christian Porter has so far only ordered an inquiry into misconduct by Commonwealth officials by the Australian Commission Into Law Enforcement Integrity. The government and opposition banded together to block a parliamentary inquiry into Crown.

The Victorian government at least appears to be serious with its gambling minister, Marlene Kairouz, last week ordering the state casino regulator to conduct a snap investigation into the allegations against Crown Resorts and any links to organised crime. Kairouz added that there would also be a review of the regulation of junket operators linked to triads who bring high rollers from China.

But so far there has been no action from the Western Australian government, where Crown’s recently re-invigorated Perth casino complex has taken a prime spot next to the city’s flash new sports stadium. Nor has there been action from the recently re-elected NSW government of Gladys Berejiklian, who was senior minister in the Barry O’Farrell administration that handed Crown a Sydney licence without public tender. Crown’s Sydney casino remains under construction.

Crown has denied all the allegations.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey