Involvement in gang activities is a critical factor in the continuation and escalation of crime and delinquency among youth (Hill et al., 1999). In China, researchers have held that gang involvement is substantially responsible for the growth of youth crime and delinquency, noting that a great deal of crime involves youth gangs (Xi, 2001). Gang association is also prevalent in the United States where about one-third of youth offenders in cities are associated with gangs (Yoder et al., 2003). Thus gang involvement is an important area of concern in preventing delinquency and crime. Identifying and understanding why young people participate in gang activities is a precondition for combating crime. Such understanding is particularly necessary in Chinese societies, which have witnessed a dramatic growth in youth crime and delinquency (Xi, 2001; Ngai, 1994; Zhang et al., 1993). This trend is likely to persist because of the ongoing structural transformation such as geographic mobility caused by unequal levels of economic development within China (Jin 1994; Ma et al., 1986; Zhang et al., 1993).
Western research and theory about young people's gang involvement may not be readily applicable to Chinese societies. Even within China, there are differences in sociocultural contexts in different parts of the country. These regional differences suggest a need to collect data from diverse Chinese societies in investigating gang involvement. Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shanghai comprise such a set of Chinese cities. The most obvious difference among these cities is in their history. The colonial past of Hong Kong distinguishes it from the socialist history of Guangzhou and Shanghai. While Guangzhou and Shanghai are on the mainland of China, each has its own culture, manifested in dialect, art, and drama. Guangzhou and Hong Kong are at the southern tip of China, which is far from the Yangzi River Delta where Shanghai is located.
A gang has been defined as a group oriented and committed to antisocial, deviant, and criminal activities (Kennedy & Baron, 1993). Typically, youths understand what a gang is and are able and willing to become involved (Yoder et al., 2003). A gang usually recruits its members on the streets. While delinquent youths can freely form their own gangs, many Chinese youths prefer to join gangs affiliated with the triad society (Che, 1992; Wong, 1999). The triad society has existed in China for several hundred years, initially as an underground political association formed to revolt against rulers of the ethnic minority. Gradually, the triad society has developed into enormous organizations that are present in most Chinese societies, including overseas communities. The triad society, headed by adults, is keen on enlisting young members to sustain its criminal interests. At the same time, delinquent youths are willing to join the society when they find it to be powerfully protective. Even where they do not join the triad society formally, many delinquent youths claim to be members and name their gangs as branches of the society. Because of the difficulty in discerning genuine triad gangs, from those that are bogus, the police strive to dissolve all Chinese youth gangs. Rather than waiting for young gangsters to emerge, inhibiting youth involvement is perhaps a more effective way to combat crime. The present study aspires to identify and reinforce the inhibiting factors.
Research and Theory
Factors inhibiting delinquent youths' involvement would stem from those postulated in social control theory, social learning theory, and cognitive development theory, which have been useful in explaining delinquency in Chinese contexts (Wong, 1999; Wong, 2001; Zhang & Messner, 1996) as well as Western contexts (Benda & Corwyn, 2001; Ennett et al. 1999; Kaplan & Liu, 1994). Social control theory refers to the informal, normative control by parents, family, school, work organizations, helping professions, and other noncoercive and conventional institutions in preventing delinquent or criminal activity (Warr, 1993; Rosenfield et al., 2001). It posits that involvement, attachment, and commitment to informal and normative institutions and their activities lead youths to endorse moral, normative beliefs that are antithetical to any criminal, delinquent, or gang persuasion (Benda & Corwyn 1997; Elliott & Menard, 1996). The essence of social control is the individual's awareness of parental or other conventional control, attachment to social workers, teachers, or other helping professionals, and acquisition of moral beliefs (Benda, 1999; Elliott & Menard, 1996; Hagan & McCarthy, 1997; Junger & Marshall, 1997; Vega et al., 1993). Research findings concerning gang involvement that are consistent with social control theory are those related to the negative effects of attachment to neighborhood, dropping out of school, unemployment, and being in a family with legal problems (Hill et al., 1999; Klein, 1997; Yoder et al., 2003).
Social learning theory posits that delinquent behavior is a result of learning from the activities and messages of others or from the media (Felson, 1996; Tracy & Kemef-Leonard, 1996). These activities and messages serve as either direct models or reinforcement of behavior (Akers 1998). Friends are important models from whom youth learn delinquent behavior, and friends' approval of that behavior reinforces the delinquency (Bao et al., 2000; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999). In research on gang association, social learning theory reveals the effects of association with delinquent peers--use of subcultural symbols and attire, and exposure to violent media (Klein, 1997; Yoder et al., 2003).
Cognitive developmental theory regards inadequate cognitive development as a cause of delinquent involvement. Cognitive development manifests itself in one's ability to process and analyze information in order to formulate solutions to problems (Husband & Platt, 1993; Okwunnabua & Duryea, 1998). That is, the ability to think about social as well as individual problems would prepare one to resist problematic social influence and act in a socially desirable way. Very often, delinquency results from the inability to cope with a problem. The crux of assistance in cognitive development is its support for the individual to think about alternative, socially desirable means of solving a problem (Houston, 1998). This ability involves empathy, perspective taking, and ethical reasoning, which are cognitive guides of one's behavior (Raine 1993). As such, delinquency arises out of ignorance of others and society in general. This ignorance is reflected in preoccupation with self which can lead to impulsive pursuit of one's self-interest by delinquent means (Gibbs, 1991). Ignorance also can result in anger and quarrels with, and even violence against others based on failure to understand and tolerate others' actions. Cognitive development functions to regulate that impulsivity and propensity for delinquency (Bickley & Beech, 2002). Understanding or even thinking about social problems would be an indicator of cognitive development (Alter & Egan, 1997; Cheung, 1997, 1998, 1999; Weast, 1996). In research on gang involvement, factors compatible with cognitive development theory include dropping out of school, and the age at which youth are unsupervised (Yoder et al., 2003).
Research in Chinese contexts has lent support to the explanations of social control theory, social learning theory, and cognitive development theory for a youth's delinquency. In support of social control theory, past findings have suggested that youths' adherence to Chinese culture, intergenerational harmony, attachment to school, and integration with society can predict their delinquency (Wong, 1999; Wong, 2001; Zhang & Messner, 1996). Similarly, Chinese children whose parents exert greater control over them are less likely to be involved in delinquency (Nagasawa et al., 2001; Wang et al., 2002). In contrast, a Chinese youth associated with delinquent peers is at risk of delinquency (Ma et al., 1996, 2000). Cognitive development has also emerged as an inhibitor of delinquency via the effects of academic achievement and problem-solving ability (Chen et al., 1997; Wang et al., 2002).
Differences in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shanghai
The above discussion leads to the formulation of a number of hypothesized predictors of youths' expected gang involvement: parental control, attachment to teachers and social workers/counselors, moral beliefs, friends' moral beliefs, and theorizing about social problems. These effects tend to vary among Chinese societies because of differences in sociocultural contexts.
There are remarkable differences between the capitalist, Westernized, and individualist system of Hong Kong and the socialist and collectivist tradition of Guangzhou …