Looking to make a quick buck to secure a train ticket home, petty criminals are pushing crime to levels unheard of during the earlier years of Communist Party rule.
Experiencing growing crime rates since the late 1970’s when the country began experimenting with market reforms, repeated crackdowns and ‘strike hard’ campaigns appear to have done little to abate the rising tide of lawlessness in China.
A recent spate of gruesome murders coupled with a series of ‘crime waves’ in the southern Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen only served to further the public’s belief that the government does not have a firm hand on crime.
“I am often afraid to go out alone at night,” said Zhang Wei, a female resident of central Beijing’s Dongcheng district. “I have been approached twice by people demanding money, in both cases though they ran away when I threatened to scream.”
“With petty and violent crime becoming more serious, people do feel vulnerable”, believes criminal law professor, Liang Gengli. “With the cracking of the ‘iron rice bowl’ (cradle to grave State support), many people have been unable to achieve any form of economic security in today’s China and so turn to crime.”
Last year there were a reported 3.95 million cases in the first 11 months of the year, a figure that officials said was similar to 2002.
Increasingly, there are pockets of criminal activity in certain areas. In Shenzhen, a city that is fast earning the sobriquet of China’s crime capital, rates increased by 57% in 2003.
With murders also rising by 35%, police have a backlog of cases that means many petty criminals are released without charge. Drugs, prostitution and organised gangs are the usual suspects with one former city resident remarking on how a hitman can be hired for as little as $25 a kill.
According to sociologist, professor Xia Xueluan, society is changing too fast allowing for an unstable combination of street crime and official graft to rise hand in hand.
“China’s rate of development needs to be tempered, we need to adjust income differences, increase employment levels and build a firmer social security system.”
Publicly at least, the pace and direction of the government's economic development policies are not being blamed for the rising crime, rather they are seen as an unfortunate side effect.
The government, though, is keen to appear to be tough on crime and the causes of crime with much publicity given to a legal case in early December in which migrant workers due unpaid wages finally caught up with their absconding employer through the courts.
There were estimated to be over $370 million in unpaid wages due to migrant workers in Beijing alone at the end of 2002, which according to Liang Gengli is one of the leading causes of petty crime around the New Year period as workers steal for their ticket home.
Although some commentators dismissed the court case as a publicity stunt to promote the government’s anti-crime initiative, Liang saw it as a much needed step towards greater openness when dealing with the causes of crime: an openness that was missing during the recent spate of mass murders where in two of the three cases, the killings had been going on for almost two years without wider public knowledge.
“Why did it take so long to catch him?” asked a taxi driver, referring to Yang Xinhai, the man who confessed to killing at least 65 people.
Cycling between villages in central China’s Henan province, Yang reportedly raped 23 of his victims while killing entire families during the night. Picked up in early November for a minor misdemeanour, it was found that he was wanted in four provinces for murder prompting questions about police organization.
“The government should let people know more about crime as it would demonstrate that our leaders have confidence in solving the problem,” suggests Liang. “At the very least, a greater openness would allow people to take defensive measures.”
Signs of a change in how the police operate do appear to be on the cards after a series of announcements in early January informing the public that over 40,000 officers out of a total of 1.7 million had recently been sacked or transferred for incompetence. In addition, the normally secretive force was instructed to hold monthly press briefings for local journalists.
This may, however, not be enough to reassure an increasingly concerned public.
“For me, one issue is the lack of police in the rural areas,” remarked Wang Dan a Shanxi province villager after reading about the murders.
Although highly noticeable in the nations capital, total police numbers are well below those for developed countries where police average 35/10,000 people. In China they average 11/10,000.
“Among the population there is a big lack of confidence in the government and the police,” said Gilles Guiheux of the French Research Centre on China. “There are many parts of China that can be considered lawless.”
To some experts, it is inevitable that China will experience an increase in crime as the inequalities of a market economy lead to temptation and opportunity.
Recent events, notably the murders, have proved to be a shocking wakeup call that China is not immune to the levels and depth of criminal behaviour seen in the West.
Already police forces are being asked to “study and learn from these events” although it is not clear what conclusions they will draw.
President Hu Jintao’s government has called for greater response in dealing with crime and social instability, but with the focus being placed on maintaining high economic growth, the wider implications of massive sociological change on the country will demand attention for some time to come.