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The puzzle of China’s low crime rates

One expert says Chinese police are cooking the books

Armed police officers enter a cordoned-off area as a Chinese man stands trial for homicide. Stringe/Imaginechina/AP

The puzzle of China’s low crime rates
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Last year, the Communist mouthpiece People’s Daily cheered a government report that China’s homicide rate in 2016 was 0.62 per 100,000 residents, one of the lowest rates in the world. The United States, in contrast, had a homicide rate of 5.35, placing it 114 spots behind of China.

What makes China a much safer country than the United States? An authoritarian government? A shame-based culture? According to China criminology expert Børge Bakken, the answer is nothing. China isn’t actually safer, he says: Instead, Chinese police underreport crime stats, and a lack of government transparency means fabricated numbers are accepted as fact.

Bakken, who recently edited a collection of essays called Crime and the Chinese Dream, found that in the city of Guangzhou, the official crime numbers make up only 2.5 percent of the actual number of crimes reported to the police. “The remaining 98 percent disappear in irrational bureaucratic incentive structures and outright bans on publicizing data on violent and serious crime that diverges from the official dream logic,” Bakken wrote in the book.

In a January interview with The Little Red Podcast, Bakken explained why this is so: Crimes involving migrant workers living in Guangzhou aren’t included in the official count, even though migrant crimes make up 80 percent of all violent crime. Police salaries and promotions are based on the rate of cracked cases, so in order to keep the rate of solved cases high, police don’t report unsolved cases. Citizens are actually punished for calling police hotlines since that registers the crime, Bakken said.

Police salaries and promotions are based on the rate of cracked cases, so in order to keep the rate of solved cases high, police don’t report unsolved cases.

The heads of departments also want to prove that crime decreased under their watch, so they falsify crime stats, lowering the number each year they’re in office. The central government also seeks to lower the number of murders each year so that it can claim a lower execution rate. All these factors result in an official crime statistic that is far from reality.

At the same time, the government has placed a high priority on detaining those who threaten the Communist Party’s control (human rights lawyers, democracy activists, outspoken bloggers). Bakken’s book notes that in some rural villages, the entire economy relies on scams or criminal behavior: Some are known for pickpocketing, fraud, or child kidnappings. If caught, criminals can bribe their way to a shorter prison sentence or, with enough money, completely erase case records.

Parents who’ve had a child kidnapped find little help from the local police, who don’t have jurisdiction to search for the culprit outside of their city. If parents then go to police in the city where they suspect their child was taken, they may find that kidnappers have paid off the authorities there. Bakken noted that only about 1 percent of kidnapped children in China are reunited with their families.

The kidnapping of young children increased thanks to China’s one-child family planning policy (now a two-child policy): Some couples desperately want a boy to pass on their family name, even if the boy is kidnapped from another family. Girls are also taken so that a couple’s son will have a wife when he grows up.

While local police often don’t find the criminals responsible for a kidnapping, they do go out of their way to track down disgruntled parents who go to Beijing to petition for help finding their child. The existence of these petitioners reflects poorly on local police, so those police expend time and energy to stop them. They arrest some parents in the provincial capitals or Beijing, and stop others before they can even leave the city.

“They seem to be more interested in cracking down on civil society,” Bakken told the podcast. “Criminal society in some ways is organizing itself very successfully.”

World’s largest sea-crossing bridge opens:

On Tuesday, President Xi Jinping opened a bridge spanning 34 miles that connects Hong Kong to Macao and the mainland city of Zhuhai. Construction on the bridge began nine years ago, cost $20 billion, and took the lives of 18 workers.

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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