Chinese police pictured during a similar crackdown on organized crime in 2009. Pic: AP.

Six rows of defendants stood up from their plastic chairs in a packed Shenzhen courtroom to hear their verdicts in the largest triad trial in the history of China’s border hub with Hong Kong. However unprecedented the scope of the trial is, the low profile of those now incarcerated show that organised crime in the city has only been marginally touched.

On Wednesday, the Shenzhen Intermediary People’s Court sentenced “Dragon brother” Chen Yaodong to life imprisonment. The official accused of protecting Chen’s activities, sub-district level Party Secretary Liu Shaodong has been sentenced to death with a two year reprieve, a sentence usually commuted to life imprisonment.

The sentences are the last in the first publicly reported trial of a Shenzhen branch of the Hong Kong-based Sun Yee On triad since 2002. They are the outcome of an investigation that lasted six years and several raids in spring last year.

42-year-old Chen denied the 14 allegations against him including organising and leading a crime syndicate, kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking, and said he would appeal the sentence.

Chen was accused of running the Sun Yee On’s branch in Shajing, a subdistrict of Shenzhen on the Pearl River shore with a predominantly migrant population. Only 33,000 of its 1.3 million inhabitants have a local residence document, according to the Shajing Subdistrict Office website. Around 60,000 Hong Kong and Macao residents trace their ancestry back to the subdistrict.

The Sun Yee On, Hong Kong’s largest triad, started making its presence felt in the area in the 1980s, when it dispatched Chen Xibo to Shajing to recruit members for a new branch there named the “Eagle gang”, according to a police briefing last March.

Chen Xibo had to flee back to Hong Kong in 1991 after a crackdown. He passed the baton on to his nephew Chen Shaodong, who over the following two decades recruited hundreds of new members, police said.

Cutting his teeth first in the drug trade, Chen went on to gain a monopoly on waste disposal in the industrial zone. Police said he had gang members patrol the some 400 factories in his territory, making sure their waste is delivered to his disposal site. In 2003, Chen moved into real estate, setting up at least 10 investment companies.

When in 2009 business partner Li Guowei objected to Chen’s terms in a construction project in Yiwu, Zhejiang, he had him kidnapped for 10 days until his family accepted the terms of the deal. Chen made a 2,500 percent profit on the investment, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported.

In a first nightly raid on Jan. 9th, last year at a nightclub in Dongguan, an hour’s drive north of Shajing, triad members fought back. Six policemen were wounded. One passer-by later died of his wounds. On Feb. 6, several hundred police armed with live ammunition raided hotels and nightclubs in Shajing arresting Dragon Brother Chen and Party Secretary Liu.

Police arrested 193 suspects, shut down 44 businesses, seized more than 1 billion yuan (US$160.5 million)in assets as well as weapons and drugs. Among the nine government employees that were arrested, three were police officers.