Cognitive and Social Influences on Gang Involvement among Delinquents in Three Chinese Cities

Article excerpt

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. …