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Rising Crime Vexes Chinese

September 29, 2002|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — A deliberate mass poisoning that left dozens dead. Serial killers who met teenage girls through the Internet, then raped and murdered them. Robberies, child abuse, contract killings, abductions.

A rash of sensational crimes has grabbed headlines in China in recent months, turning public safety into a hot topic and prompting hand-wringing over the state of Chinese society.

Shocked by the brutality of some of the incidents, experts and ordinary Chinese alike are lamenting what they see as a breakdown in everything from morality to education in a Confucian society that traditionally has put a premium on both. Others pin the blame on the widening disparity between China's haves and have-nots--and warn of further antisocial behavior.

"As long as society is out of kilter, vicious things will keep on happening," one Internet user wrote in a posting on a popular Chinese Web site last week. "It's time for people to stop and think. We've had great economic development, but we've lost so many things--including our consciences."

Such angst may seem overwrought from a Western perspective: In general, China is an extremely safe country, a place where children walk home from school unaccompanied and nighttime brings little cause for fear.

But there is no doubt the crime rate is soaring. Experts estimate the number of criminal cases rose last year by nearly a third from the year before, including more than 20,000 homicides. (In 1999, there were nearly 17,000 murders in the U.S., whose population is less than a quarter of China's.) The increase was the latest in a steady rise that has occurred in near lock-step with China's market-oriented reforms of the last 20 years.

Those reforms have delivered greater freedom and affluence to millions of people, who have the money to decorate their homes, buy cars and watch movies on their DVD players. But millions of others have lost jobs or struggled to keep up, creating a highly uneven distribution of wealth that government researchers warn is reaching dangerous levels. The yawning gap between rich and poor, sociologists say, is producing the conditions for the explosion of homicidal, larcenous and other illicit behavior.

The decline in public safety--and its probable cause--is a sensitive political issue for China's Communist regime, which is gearing up for a crucial party congress in November that could see a change in leadership. In the run-up to the gathering, President Jiang Zemin wants China to project an image of shiny, happy people whose prosperity and satisfaction he is eager to claim at least partial credit for.

Government sensitivities were on display recently following the mass poisoning at a fast-food restaurant in the eastern city of Nanjing. Witnesses reported seeing victims, many of them students, collapse within minutes of ingesting rat poison-laced food, blood streaming from their noses and mouths. Dozens of people died.

The Chinese media jumped on the incident--but were told by the government to back off. An early death toll of 41 put out by the official New China News Agency was later revised to "many people" having died.

Within a day, police nabbed the alleged culprit: a restaurateur who was jealous of his rival's success.

"My God, how many crazy people are there in our society? It has shown what a failure our educational system is," read one posting in the heavy Internet traffic that ensued.

The remarks echoed widespread criticism that authorities and emergency personnel had responded too slowly to the poisoning, leading to unnecessary deaths.

From the Beijing regime's point of view, the failure to prevent crime isn't for want of trying. For months, the police have been prosecuting one of China's periodic "Strike Hard" anti-crime campaigns, an aggressive crackdown during which thousands of criminal cases are reportedly solved--often through forced confessions--and hundreds of convicts executed to demonstrate the government's resolve and prowess.

Unfortunately, if past campaigns are any guide, such crackdowns have done little but dent the crime rate temporarily. Instead, they often have the unintended effect of calling public attention to high-profile crimes the government would sooner sweep under the rug.

Chinese newspapers, which are livelier and harder for the state to control than in the past, have taken to crime reporting with almost the same enthusiasm--and relish for grisly detail--as some of their Western counterparts.

This year, readers have been treated to reports about China's first Internet serial killers; a psychopath in Beijing who was executed for killing 14 prostitutes; a burglar who stabbed to death a famous elderly Peking opera star; and the leader of a brutal gang of armed robbers in central China who once slaughtered a family of four for a booty of 30 yuan ($3.60).

Such incidents, while not necessarily causing ordinary citizens to modify their everyday behavior, have nonetheless contributed to an impression of growing lawlessness.

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