26 June 2013

上课: Crime Rates in China – Political Pressure + Statistics = Cue Elevator Music

Crime rates in China are low. The latest statistics (see UN Office on Drugs and Crime) place China in the arena with Switzerland and Japan, countries which boast some of the best internationally acknowledged public security and domestic order. As of 2012, China’s murder rate was calculated at 1.1 per 100,000 (compare to Switzerland at 0.7, Britain at 1.2 and America at 5.0). The total amount of reported criminal cases in 2010 was 2.6million (in the US there were 10.3million cases that year). Violent crime and property crime show similarly low numbers. Drug trafficking and abuse rates have not shown significant increase from their near non-existent numbers pre-1979. 

Statistics are by nature misleading. How much credence can we really attribute to these glowing reports? The devil is in the details: ‘murder’ does not necessarily include killings which occur in the course of other violent crimes, nor is each one ‘murder’ equivalent to one victim. According to the World Health Organisation, for the 23,300 murders in 2002, there were 38,000 deaths from “homicide-related injuries”. Furthermore, ‘violent crime’ has no set definition and property crimes do not appear to always count towards general crime statistics. So maybe don’t go poking metaphorical bears in China just yet. 

Let’s set the scene. 

China has experienced profound social, political and economic change in the past 30 years. The country is under significant social stress - growing pains if you will – as millions of rural migrant workers flood the cities and the economic gap between rich and poor widens. From what we know of the human condition, these circumstances do not match with the rosy picture painted by the crime statistics. 

Crime in contemporary China is divided into two distinct periods in almost every analysis: Mao Era (1950s-1979) and Post-Deng Xiaoping Reforms Era (1980s-present). Mao Era China was virtually crime-less. Scholars have attributed this to an “institutional suppression of personal economic motivation”. All property which was valuable enough to steal was a state asset and thus the property of the many already and punishments were prohibitive in their severity. Deng Xiaoping’s Reforms in 1978 marked the economic remaking of China. Accompanying these reforms were the introduction of mobility and the reality of unemployment (factors not within contemplation for Mao’s China). The sun had set on the utopian collective and an economically driven society had taken the field. 

The division between the eras is artificially intensified. The government laments the increase in crime, blaming western cultural influences and glorifying the Mao Era days of security and safety. The idea is: crime is a plague from the West. Are not Hollywood movies known for making good guys out of criminals (see: Ocean’s Eleven) and commending a flagrant disregard of the rules? Chinese culture is one of harmony and peace – no one would deliberately seek to commit any offence. Of course, this is a ridiculous notion. Crime obviously existed in China before 1979. And it’s not as if Chinese culture doesn’t glorify the rogue – one of the Four Great Classical Novels (四大名著) is The Water Bandits (水浒传), a Robin Hood-esque tale of outlaws. But this aspiration to go back and adhere to ‘true Chinese values’ of ‘pre-crime’ drives much of the Ministry of Public Security’s goals. 

The first time China submitted its national crime statistics to Interpol was in 1986. Before that, they were considered ‘state secrets’. Crime statistics are the affair of the Ministry of Public Security and reported yearly by the National Bureau of Statistics. Offences are categorized as criminal (more serious) or public security (less serious) cases. The classical problems with official statistics are there: victims’ reporting behaviour varies over time; definitions of crime change; and recording standards are not consistent. Problems are exacerbated by the Ministry’s aspirations. 

In 2010, the Ministry of Public Security demanded at least 85% success rate in murder cases. The result: if their chances for cracking a case don’t look so great, police officers simply do not register the case. Statistics only look at the registered papers, after all. The 1980s-1990s policy of handing out ‘case-cracking’ bonuses also led to under-recording; police officers once again were incentivised not to record hard-to-solve cases. An emphasis on clearing cases also has darker consequences: wrongful conviction and torture to get favourable confessions are serious concerns to scholars and the populace. 

And there we have it: political pressure and a glorious history of crime-free society set a high bar for China. Maybe China’s low crime rates do not tell the whole story. Maybe the statistics are a bit on the utopian side. But we cannot say anything for sure. 

In the end, what matters is that China feels safe. People are not afraid to walk around alone at night and girls don’t clutch desperately at their purses in the crowded Beijing metro. A prevailing sense that public security is high may do more for crime rates than reports tabulating incremental increases.

One RenMin professor joked: let’s not give the people the idea that there is a burgeoning market for crime out there. 

KEYWORDS: Crime in China, Statistics, Policing, Mao Era, Ministry of Public Security, Safety and Public Order

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