Snakeheads, mules, and protective umbrellas: A review of current research on Chinese organized crime

Sheldon X. Zhang, Ko Lin Chin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


China's red-hot economy in recent decades has not only brought the country unprecedented wealth and political prominence in the world but also created ample opportunities for criminal enterprises to flourish. A review of recently published literature reveals that two types of transnational criminal activities - human smuggling and drug trafficking - received a fair amount of empirical attention in the research community. Other crimes, however, although carrying equally significant cross-national implications, have received scant attention. Thanks to a handful of empirical studies in recent years, the notion that traditional Chinese crime syndicates dominated transnational criminal activities has largely been dispelled. Most of those involved in transnational crimes (at least in human smuggling and drug trafficking) were found to be otherwise ordinary individuals who exploit their social or familial networks to take advantage of emerging opportunities. The criminal underworld in China appears to be growing along two separate tracks, with transnational organized crimes operating on one track and locally based criminal organizations on the other. Both groups of criminal entities are not known to cross paths in any systemic way. Research on Chinese organized crime (either locally based or transnational) has remained rather limited. Future research needs to emphasize empirical strategies to explore these and other pressing transnational criminal activities, as well as to solidify recent findings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)177-195
Number of pages19
JournalCrime, Law and Social Change
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Law


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