Little Red Podcast

Lies, Damn Lies and Police Statistics4 min read

Crime and the dark side of the Chinese Dream – Louisa Lim



There was once a time when Chinese towns got rich producing a single cheap commodity such as the zip, the cigarette lighter or the humble button. In some parts of China, the model remains the same but the product is crime. Criminal villages – fanzui cun – are emerging, showing a darker side of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream. Even the staid headlines of the People’s Daily cannot hide the Dickensian nature of scams such as the child pickpockets of Daoxian, Hunan – often unsuspecting kids rented out to gangs by their poverty-stricken families – or the cat burglars of Yanhe County in Guizhou or the killers of Shishun, also in Hunan, whose stock-in-trade is murdering migrant miners then posing as grieving family members to seek compensation from mine owners.

“People who couldn’t get rich by legal means got rich by other means,” explains criminologist Børge Bakken, whose edited volume Crime and the Chinese Dream delves into the factors leading to the emergence of criminal villages. The book’s title is also a homage to Crime and the American Dream, a seminal work of criminological theory by Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld which argues that America’s over-emphasis on materialistic gain led to high crime rates. Bakken believes the same is true in China, because of what he sees as a state capitalist dream: “The Chinese Dream in itself creates criminogenic pressures on society.”

One case study, conducted by his student Zhang Xi, examines the “cake-uncle” scam in which fraudsters sell cream cakes to other villages, then falsify the accounts and claim back multiples of what they were due. They use the money to set themselves up in cities far away, diversifying their fraudulent schemes well beyond cakes. As Bakken describes, “They were the first to build three-storey buildings [in the village]. They were the guys … whom the girls wanted to marry. They became millionaires. And now they have spread all over China. They became local criminal entrepreneurs. Other villages came to them.”

Crime really does pay in rural China, with the cake-uncles paying backhanders to local police to reduce their sentences, or even to remove their criminal records, both of which could be beneficial to local police who are judged on the basis of local crime rates. Zhang argues that by innovating illegal ways to produce wealth, the cake-uncles are leapfrogging their way out of social exclusion, and acting as the moral and material modernizers of their rural society.    Many criminal villages are in the most poverty-stricken areas of China, so their residents are simply finding new ways to follow political dictates, says Bakken. “The Deng Xiaoping rationale that some must get rich first is based on a system of betting on the strong. These people are taking themselves from being the weak to being the strong.”

Very few of these crimes are likely to be reflected in official crime statistics, with CCP Central Committee Head of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs Meng Jianzhu boasting a 43% drop in severe violent crime over the past five years, and one of the lowest murder rates in the world at just 0.62 per 100,000 residents.

Bakken argues that Chinese crime statistics are heavily falsified, since they follow the practice of removing from urban statistics crimes involving migrant workers, who are the victims and perpetrators of 80% of Chinese crimes. Bakken cites one example from his research of the city of Guangzhou, where he has evidence that the official crime numbers cited by police constitute just 2.5 percent of the number of crimes reported to police, with the remaining 97.5% purged from the records.

One reason for this, Bakken says, is administrative. Police get paid and promoted according to the po’an lu or case-cracking rate, leading to incentives to under-report crimes and ensure crimes reported are never registered. Other scholars such as Griffith University’s Susan Trevaskes have reported similar findings, including the fact that most police stations have two crime records on file: the real incident report rate and the “fake record.” On homicide figures, Bakken believes murder statistics are falsified in order to massage down execution figures. “Murder rates are falsified from the top and all the other rates are falsified from down and up. So it’s a system that is being falsified from all kinds of levels, for propaganda reasons, managerial reasons, recording reasons, all kinds of reasons.”

The Chinese authorities possess formidable powers to track residents’ behaviour, as shown through their treatment of petitioners and through the internal bureaucracy necessary for implementing family planning laws. Yet these powers, Bakken concludes, are often not used by the authorities to counter criminal behaviour. “They seem to be more interested in cracking down on civil society,” he says. “Criminal society in some ways is organizing itself very successfully.” The result is what he calls “the abnormal normality of China.” Instead of fostering the Chinese dream, these conditions are allowing an uncivil society to flourish.


This essay is a companion piece to this week’s episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith amd Louisa Lim and distributed by Chinoiresie at Australian National University.
Header: A Chinese prisoner is lead in chains by two guards, from Wikimedia Commons.