BEIJING — Authorities in the Chinese capital are using the case of a slain policeman and his wounded partner to sound the alarm about urban lawlessness and violence here. But the campaign also carries a larger appeal for law and order, directed at the country's emerging middle class, that is changing the shape of politics in China.
The shooting death last month of police officer Cui Daqing by a man wanted in eight other killings has been featured prominently in the Chinese press.
In a rare mass meeting, more than 30,000 people attended a memorial service for the officer in a suburban Beijing sports stadium. And the long funeral cortege to a hero's burial for Cui at Babaoshan Cemetery was broadcast on national television.
Such orchestrated public attention to violent crime is something new in China. When a People's Liberation Army officer went berserk in September, killing eight people and wounding 30 as he sprayed bullets into rush-hour traffic, it merited two lines in one Beijing newspaper.
China's leaders long have used public trials--and highly public executions--to condemn certain offenses, such as corruption and theft of state property, that were seen as cancers on Communist power and authority. But now the official media are turning a similar spotlight on ordinary street crime affecting the lives of common people.
The flurry of stories about the slain police officer and other violence reflects growing public fear of crime. And it demonstrates the willingness of the Communist government to play off this fear as a political issue to win support from China's relatively affluent urban populations.
In that respect, it is not unlike the use of law and order as a highly charged issue in the U.S. political scene. Critics of the Chinese regime worry that the law-and-order issue may work to divide pro-democratic segments of the population.
In an era of great disparities in wealth between urban and rural and between coastal and interior sections of the country, such developments become particularly important.
After a decade of rapid growth, many urban Chinese families find themselves for the first time with something material to lose. At the same time, the huge influx of migrant laborers from China's rural provinces--1.5 million in Beijing alone--has brought into the cities people desperate and poor enough to take it from them.
"Under the great social pressure of polarization," Shanghai Normal University Prof. Xiao Gongqin wrote in an essay for the bimonthly Strategy and Management magazine, "the (migrant and unemployed populations) are experiencing very intense feelings of social setback and dissatisfaction that is the hotbed for the new social instabilities."
Recently it has become fashionable among some of the country's sociologists and political scientists to warn of widespread social disorder as the clash between China's haves and have-nots intensifies.
Native Beijing residents say theft and petty crime, such as purse snatching, are particularly bad in the days before holidays, when migrant laborers are seeking money to go home to their families.
Police in Beijing say their statistics show that 70% of all crime, including violent crime, is committed by this huge "floating population."
Yuan Yue, a young law school graduate whose public-opinion polling company has conducted surveys of Beijing residents for each of the last three years, said public fear of crime has increased dramatically in recent years.
In a poll of 600 Beijing residents conducted in April, 1993, more than 55% of those interviewed said they felt safe in Beijing. But when a nearly identical poll was taken in November, 1994, the number of residents who said they felt "safe" or "very safe" had dropped to 45%.
In his initial polls, conducted by teams of students from five Beijing universities, Yuan said residents were asked: "Has your bicycle ever been stolen?"
Because bicycle theft has become so common, however, Yuan said this year the question was amended to ask: "How many times has your bicycle been stolen?"
In a poll of 350 business executives or company managers, public security ranked as the most important concern. In polls of the broader population, inflation and housing rated higher.
In recent months, there has been a markedly increased emphasis on crime in the government-controlled media.
During last month's session of the National People's Congress, China's top prosecutor told delegates of a dramatic increase in serious crimes, including murder, rape, drug trafficking and organized crime.
Supreme People's Procurator Zhang Siqing said crimes in those categories jumped 61.9% over the previous year.
The new emphasis on crime reporting is clear from stories televised recently on the national China Central Television evening news, the country's most watched television program.
* On March 24, CCTV broadcast the funeral of Cui, the slain police officer.