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China Confronts Rising Crime in a Fast-track Economy

  • Heda Bayron

China's rapid economic and social changes have created some undesirable consequences, among them a rising incidence of crime. However, Chinese officials are learning that simply imposing harsh penalties will not solve the problem.

On the evening of February 21, Ng Wai-keung, a 41-year-old man from Hong Kong was attacked in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. His attackers took his money and stabbed his left eye, leaving him brain dead.

Mr. Ng's experience is just a sample of the growing number of gruesome crime tales from residents and travelers in China.

China's ministry in charge of internal security says crime is on the rise. Last year, the number of reported crimes rose 7.5 percent to nearly five million, nearly at the same pace as China's economic growth. Theft and robbery made up 80 percent of the cases. Car thefts, in a country that until recently had few private cars, climbed 18 percent.

Experts say the growth is an unwelcome product of the country's rapid economic development.

China's crime rate has been accelerating since the late 1970s, when the country embarked on economic reforms. According to figures from the United Nations, in the early 1980s there were 90 reported crimes per 100,000 people. But by the late 1990s, this had jumped 45 percent to 131 per 100,000.

Still, compared with many industrialized countries such as the United States and Germany, China has far fewer crimes per capita.

Professor Liu Jianhong of Rhode Island College in the United States studies crime in China. He says an increase is inevitable as economic development brings raised expectations, new wealth and new opportunity for illegal activity.

"Before the reform, there was a very low economic motivation," said Mr. Liu. "The government did not allow individual economic ambitions. So for those people who do not have means to get rich, of course there is a pressure in terms of producing economic criminal motivations to obtain the means."

The economic boom has created a large income gap between the wealthy urban areas and the impoverished countryside - where some 900 million Chinese live.

With the cities growing richer, rural residents migrate to them in search of work - millions of farmers now perform manual labor in the cities. But under China's residency system, they are denied many benefits of city life, including schools for their children and health care.

Sociologists say economic inequality can breed frustration among the less well off.

In July, for instance, a young peasant seized a woman from her car in Jilin province and demanded $12,000 in ransom. Police shot the hostage-taker when he slashed the woman's neck.

The police say criminals target entrepreneurs and celebrities in China's prosperous coastal regions. Kidnap victims have had to pay thousands of dollars in ransom or face death.

Hong Kong residents and Taiwanese businessmen visiting booming Guangdong Province sometimes fall victim to robberies and kidnappings. Guangdong officials blamed 80 percent of all criminal offenses last year on migrants.

Punishment in China can be severe, with the death penalty used often. But some experts say that does not necessarily deter criminals.

China often deals with crime through high-profile crackdowns. Considerable publicity is given, for example, to periodic campaigns against narcotics trafficking. The campaigns usually lead to mass trials and, in most cases, executions.

A marked increase in violent crime in the 1980s and 1990s led to a series of "Strike Hard," or "Yanda" campaigns that resulted in thousands of arrests and public executions.

Human rights groups say these campaigns resulted in abuses, including the prosecution of innocent people. Amnesty International says people convicted of relatively minor crimes not normally warranting the death penalty were executed.

Professor Liu of Rhode Island College says any deterrent from the campaigns was temporary because they do not address crime's social causes. Moreover, he says, the application of the law was not sustained.

"Law is effective only because it is consistent. It's something that makes people predict what's going to happen if they commit a crime. If you just carry out 'Strike Hard,' that creates inconsistency in law, that really in the long term reduces the effectiveness of the law, " he said.

Experts say China needs a law enforcement system able to meet the demands of far-reaching economic and social changes.

Roderic Broadhurst, a professor at the Center for Criminology at Hong Kong University, says, "What China is doing is trying desperately to maintain economic prosperity and development and it's also trying to modernize legal institutions, trying to change the way the Public Security Bureau makes security organs operate so that they become more effective, in other words a professional police force which patrols streets, has special investigators and has all the trappings of a modern police force."

Experts say China's leadership recognizes that it needs a comprehensive strategy to curb crime - which means reforming its justice system, stepping up crime prevention and addressing the income inequality that motivates many criminals.

Mr. Broadhurst says there is a long way to go.

"There's a whole raft of things that the Chinese authorities have been trying to do to control or contain crime, but it's a vast problem," he added.

International law organizations have been working with Chinese officials to raise the standard of law enforcement procedures, including protecting suspects' rights.

And the Chinese leadership says it will address one of the major causes of crime, by raising the living standards of the rural poor.