Spiraling violent crime triggers concern in China
BEIJING—A series of grisly attacks in China, including school stabbings, a courthouse shooting and a slashing rampage on a train, have forced the public and officials to confront what experts say is the long-hidden problem of spiraling violent crime.
Criminologists at home and abroad say violent incidents in China have long been underreported by police, but it's becoming harder for authorities to stifle news about the worst cases when ordinary people are quick to spread information via mobile phones and the Internet.
In the last two months, there have been five major assaults against schoolchildren, leaving 17 dead and more than 50 wounded. This week two more attacks made headlines: A man burst into a court office in central China and fatally shot three judges, while on the same day a woman slashed nine fellow passengers in sleeper compartments on an overnight train in the northeast.
The apparently random attacks in public spaces have shocked and frightened the public, and left people desperate to understand why it's happening.
"Of course I am scared, what if this happens to us?" said Shen Caiyi, a Beijing mother, as she watched her 7-year-old son kick and block his way through a kung fu class she hopes could help prepare him for any potential attack. "The events have shaken us. I think schools should have strengthened their security systems a long time ago."
According to official statistics, violent crime in China jumped 10 percent last year, with 5.3 million reported cases of homicide, robbery, and rape. It was the first time since 2001 that violent crime increased, said the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in its Chinese Rule of Law Blue Book released in February.
Experts like Pi Yiyun, a professor of criminology at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, are skeptical about those figures.
Pi said he doesn't know what the actual rates are, but he doesn't think it's plausible that violent crime was falling between 2001 and 2008. He said provincial or county level officials, not the central government, are likely misreporting their data.
"Many local officials believe the crime rate is just a number that can be randomly modified," he said. "They tend to cover up the truth and report a false number, because a high crime rate might affect their chance of being promoted."
He said the big jump in 2009 could be an attempt to bring the figures closer in line with the real situation.
Borge Bakken, an expert on Chinese crime and professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, said his research indicates violence, particularly homicides, has been climbing since 1980.
"The real crime problem is much higher than the recorded official crime rates, and the police are well aware of that fact," he said.
Official anxiety about the spiraling crime problem is clearly reflected in this year's budget, with sharp spending increases for public security.
Experts say China's problem is not a lack of police, high-tech security equipment or surveillance cameras, which are plentiful in the big cities, but simmering and widespread frustration over the growing wealth gap, corruption and too few legal channels for people who have grievances.
"Societies are pressure cookers -- and Chinese society, arguably, is particularly high-pressure and has relatively few legitimate avenues for recourse and few legitimate ways to release intense psychological pressure," said Harold Tanner, a professor of Chinese history at the University of North Texas. "The system as a whole, even when it is working more or less as designed, does not provide people with enough legitimate avenues for pursuit of justice."
Tanner pointed out that several of the recent attacks were sparked by grudges. State media said the man who killed three judges before committing suicide was upset over how the court had divided assets when he and his wife divorced. One of the men who attacked school children had a rent dispute that local authorities had refused to help him resolve.
Pi, the Beijing criminology professor, said he considers the school attacks and the court killing similar examples of social anger boiling over into violence.
"We can't just say those people were angry, lost control. They won't do it for no reason, and we have to ask, 'Where does that anger come from?'" Pi said. "The benefits of economic reform have been exhausted and now it's a turning point. The wealth gap is widening, the unemployment problem and corruption are becoming more severe."
Pi said the government needs to tackle all these issues but "most importantly, they must provide a proper channel for appeal."
China bars public demonstrations, and a centuries-old system for bringing grievances to the central government is widely considered broken. Police, courts and local government officials do not function independently of one another and bribes are frequently required to get any official help mediating disputes.
Another element is China's lack of trained medical specialists to treat the mentally ill. At least three of the recent school attackers had a history of mental health problems.
A study in the British medical journal The Lancet last year said about 173 million Chinese, or 17.5 percent of the population, have some form of mental disorder, ranging from depression to schizophrenia. The vast majority of those people -- about 158 million -- have never received any kind of professional help.
For Patrick Chovanec, an American who teaches business at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the recent reports have challenged his perception of how safe China is. He was so disturbed by the recent cases, he posted an essay on his blog Wednesday titled "Is China Becoming More Violent?"
"One almost never heard of such incidents in China until recently," he wrote, noting that he first visited China in 1986. "In fact, I've always thought of China as a remarkably safe country."
"You do wonder, 'What the heck is going on?'" Chovanec said in a phone interview. "I really don't know. ... I posted that (essay) as a genuine query. Maybe such things have been going on for a very long time and we never even knew."
Associated Press researcher Xi Yue contributed to this report.