Shanghai's Gangs in the Early 20th Century

China was a dangerous place in the early 20th century, especially if you were Chinese. Warlords controlled large swaths of territory, the country was in an almost constant state of civil war, and banditry was commonplace. If you happened to be European or Japanese, you benefited from extraterritoriality treaties that essentially made you immune to any Chinese judicial rulings, which meant that you could commit almost any crime within China’s borders and face little to no punishment for it. Many Chinese cities had places referred to as “concessions,” which were districts or pieces of land given to European governments or the Japanese for their own colonial administrations to control, police, and otherwise dominate. Shanghai had two of these: the French Concession and the International Settlement, which were essentially controlled by the British. It is in this dangerous, confusing, and deeply imperialist situation in which Shanghai’s gangs, especially the Green Gang, came into their full power.

To understand the Green Gang, we first need to look at Chinese policy regarding opium in the 18th and early 19th century. Introduced by the British, the sale of opium was made legal in China in the mid-19th century after a series of wars called the Opium Wars. During the following years, trade of opium exploded in the country, and a large number of native opium farms sprung up in China. In the 1890s, foreign opium still made up around one-fifth of all Chinese imports [1]. Despite this, in the early 20th century, international public opinion turned against legalized opium, and Western powers allowed the Qing to implement a ten-year phased abolition campaign, which began in 1907 and continued till 1919 due to the interference of the 1911 revolution and the ensuing political chaos. During the campaign, a large number of merchants involved with the Red Gang managed to establish a complete monopoly over the illicit trade of opium entering and leaving Shanghai, which quickly became one of the largest centers for the drug entering China [2]. This swift change in legality caused China’s political situation regarding opium to develop into one markedly similar to that of the United States during prohibition, since Chinese citizens still wanted access to the drug. Even more than in the case of the United States, the Chinese government found it completely impossible to effectively police the organized crime organizations that sprang up around the acquisition and sale of illegal opium.

Essentially, we have now arrived at the part where colonialism, anti-communism, and everyday human greed completely take over and drive the story to a place that barely makes sense. It didn’t take long for the warlords, the Chinese central government, and, arguably the most important of all, imperial European powers to smell their chance to make a quick buck off the ordeal. The Big Eight Mob, a branch of the Green Gang which completely controlled the sale of illegal narcotics in the International Settlement, made an agreement with the British. Shen Xingshan, the leader of the mob, served as the Shanghai Municipal Police, which had jurisdiction over the International Settlement, chief of Chinese detectives, and proceeded to fill his squads with his fellow gangsters, leading to a situation in which a journalist stated that, “almost every Chinese detective on the [SMP] had a criminal record” [3].

It didn’t take long for the French to follow suit, taking their relationship with the gangs to an even higher level. Huang Jinrong, a gangster with connections to the Red Gang, the Green Gang, bandit groups outside of Shanghai, and other illegal organizations throughout China, quickly became the most prominent figure in the French Concession’s Chinese police force [4]. The French protected the Green Gang’s gambling and opium rings throughout the concession in return for the gang’s assistance in helping keep order and, of course, a cut of the profits. The arrangement worked for the French due to the nature of colonial police forces, which effectively acted more as paramilitary forces concerned with keeping order than the enforcement of law or justice with regards to their Chinese residents, and thus hiring brutal gangsters seemed a perfect solution to the population control problem. In fact, these colonial police forces were so heavily militarized that they sometimes openly clashed with each other over jurisdiction within colonial Shanghai [5]. Gangsters wore uniforms, carried guns provided by the French, and were even registered with the police as guards. Eventually, the French military became involved in the opium trade, and gunboats would often escort Green Gang ships, which flew French flags, up the river as they carried cargos of illegal guns to Sichuan and opium back to Shanghai. Other powers, colonial or not, which enjoyed extraterritoriality treaties with China, were known to sell citizenship to gangsters in order to help them avoid trial in Chinese courts.

The mention of illegal guns forces me to spend a while talking about some of the other criminal operations the Green Gang took on, as they were more than just an organization which sold opium and organized gambling, which only affected drug users and gamblers, and not those that did not take part in these activities. The Green Gang also actively participated in the illicit arms trade which perpetuated the Chinese Civil War by providing warlords with weapons. Gangs often acted as intermediaries between colonial powers who wished to sell these warlords weapons dispute international law ruling against such actions. Secondly, gangs in Shanghai, due to their connection with bandit groups and involvement in prostitution, were known for kidnappings. Gangsters kidnapped young girls and sold them to brothels, and young boys would be sold to either factories, monasteries, or other places where they might be put to work. When French ships escorted the Green Gang’s vessels up the river, they often carried human cargo as well as arms.

It is probably not surprising that, during periods of warlord control of Shanghai, the warlords often made deals with the gangsters as well. During 1925, these alliances reached a new level of absurd when three Fengtian-aligned generals started a shootout over the distribution of opium profits, leaving one dead and two heavily wounded, and illegal opium was sold in packages bearing the seal of the Shanghai Bureau for the Prevention of Opium and Drug Smuggling [6]. More surprising, however, is the alliance the Green Gang made with the Right Guomindang (GMD) and Chiang Kai-Shek. The Right GMD saw the gangsters as a simultaneous source of revenue and an ally against both the communists and their enemies in the Left GMD. Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nanchang Policy, which called for the destruction of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Left GMD power bases throughout China, made heavy use of the Green Gang, which led to a period of White Terror throughout the 1920s [7]. These alliances between the warlords, the Right GMD, and the Green Gang allowed the gangsters to operate in the city with almost complete autonomy within the city, and essentially created a situation in which rule of law completely fell apart.

The rise of Shanghai’s gangs, their brutality, and their political power represents a rather sordid lesson in what happens when imperialism and authoritarianism are allowed to run unchecked. Without the intervention of imperial powers, which first legalized and then later illegalized opium, many of the Chinese secret societies and gangs may never have moved beyond their origins as illegal salt traders flaunting Qing law, and without their later cooperation with these same gangs, their power and brutality may never have been able to run so unchecked within China. Similarly, without the Right GMD’s willingness to make alliances with the gangsters, they could have been at least checked by one power, if not completely controlled. Instead, fear of communism, greed for a cut of lucrative opium, arms, and slave trades, and a strong desire to keep order led to a policy in which a desire to keep order overrode justice.

[1] Brian G. Martin, The Shanghai Green Gang (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 45.

[2] Ibid, 47.

[3] Ibid, 33.

[4] Ibid, 66-67.

[5] Erik Esselstrom, Crossing Empire’s Edge, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009), 42.

[6] Brian G. Martin, The Shanghai Green Gang (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 59.

[7] Ibid, 94.


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