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CHINA: Crime Plagues Once-Safe Streets : As China Opens Up, Crime Forces It to Lock Up

Asia: Poverty, rapid economic growth and new freedom of movement contribute to problem. Corruption erodes the public's trust in police.


BEIJING — The guests at Taoyuan Hotel on Beijing's northwestern outskirts were settling in for the night when their nightmare began--a mass mugging by armed robbers who surrounded the hotel and ransacked it for valuables and cash.

It was a dramatic example of a surge in urban crime and rural banditry that is worrying the Chinese. Many people say lawlessness has reached levels at least as bad as under the Nationalists, who were defeated by the Communists in 1949.

In the more egalitarian days of Mao Tse-tung, foreign tourists marveled at railroad and hotel employees who chased them down to return discarded razor blades and forgotten cameras.

Those days are gone.

"People used to leave their doors unlocked. No one would think of stealing anything," said a Beijing taxi driver who didn't want to be identified. "Now I have to worry about people getting in my car and then murdering me so that they can sell it."

Many city dwellers put the blame on the growing disparity between haves and have-nots that has accompanied China's free-market reforms, and on an influx of poor country people looking for jobs. Once-stringent travel and residence restrictions have eased in recent years, making it much easier for criminals to evade police.

"The combination of poverty, regional disparities in wealth, rapid economic growth, social dislocation, a relatively young population and a weak, chaotic legal system can be expected to lead to rising crime rates," said Harold Miles Tanner, an academic who studies the issue.

China is not soft on crime. Official news media frequently report roundups of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of criminals as well as mass executions for crimes ranging in severity from murder to selling false receipts.

Arrests of serial murderers in several Chinese cities in 1995 shocked urbanites, who viewed the cases as more evidence that crime is getting out of control.

A survey by the official newspaper Legal Daily found that more than 70% of the people polled felt unsafe in Beijing. Theft, mugging, violence, traffic accidents and fraud were the five problems most commonly cited.

Now foreigners and Chinese think twice before venturing onto quiet, dark streets late at night. They complain about pickpocket gangs on crowded buses. Many are fortifying their homes with stronger locks, iron grates and burglar alarms.

The situation in the countryside is more difficult to gauge. But state-run media frequently report on shootouts between local gangs and police and on hijackings and murders on the long-distance buses that are the only mass transport to reach many towns in China's interior.

According to the most recent available figures, the number of criminal cases handled by police topped the 1 million mark last August, a 6% increase from a year earlier. About half were considered serious crimes.

"In some places, the problem of public security remains very pronounced, with serious vicious crime, increases in drug-related crimes and prostitution," Ren Jianxin, president of the Supreme People's Court, told a national crime conference last fall.

He earlier reported that courts handled 482,927 criminal cases in 1994, or 20% more than the previous year. Half the people sentenced in those cases, he said, were convicted of crimes that "posed a grave threat to national security or public safety"--murder, armed robbery, rape, drug trafficking, kidnapping women and children, disrupting production.

As crime has risen, increasing corruption has eroded the public's trust in police and other government officials to deal with the problem.

The common criminal practice of impersonating police and other authorities to conduct searches and exact "fines" hasn't helped either. Police in central Jiangsu province reported recently that they had confiscated 126,690 police uniforms intended for such purposes.

In the Taoyuan Hotel case, the robbers first claimed to be police and demanded the manager open all guest rooms for inspection. When he asked for identification, one pulled a gun.

Eventually, one guest escaped and ran for the real police. Five robbers were caught, but the rest got away with 38,000 yuan ($4,600) in cash and other valuables.

Police work has become increasingly dangerous--1,147 police officers died in the line of duty in the last five years, the Legal Daily newspaper reported in early January. The government has not released any comparative figures for earlier years, but attacks on police have only recently become a topic in the state-run media.

In one notable case, five police officers were attacked by hundreds of cigarette vendors when they tried to inspect a cigarette wholesale market in eastern Zhejiang province. The peddlers overturned the patrol car, smashed its windows and injured the officers.

The latest class of people held up as working-class heroes by the Communist Party are crime fighters, including elderly women and teenagers as well as police.

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