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China's Efforts Against Crime Ineffective

By Laurel Mittenthal, China News Digest, 28 December 2001

[CND, 12/28/01] Some argue that China's recurring Strike Hard campaigns do not have a lasting impact on crime, underscoring the limits of a policing strategy based on the use of forced confessions and the threat of execution, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

On his last night on earth, CHANG Dongqing to a distress call made from the scene of an armed robbery in progress near the police station here in the town of Taigu, in Shanxi province, where he was stationed. Another officer had taken with him the police station's only firearm, a 1954 series, .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, so Officer Chang armed himself with the long iron rod that completed the station's armory.

Not more than an hour later, he had been killed by a shotgun bullet fired into the heart.

My husband had a glorious job, his wife, HAN Xuehong, saddened and apprehensive, said during an interview at the police station in Taigu about her attempts to cope since Officer Chang's death in May.

Officer Chang is one of hundreds of police casualties who have died while on police business the beginning of the latest Strike Hard campaign in April. The campaign has again unleashed months of frenzied police activity intended to frighten criminals into submission and demonstrate to the general population that the government still has crime under control.

Office Chang was part of China's metaphorical thin gray line. Similar to the so-called thin blue line of the United States police forces, it is intended protect law-abiding citizens from society's criminals, but the line in China is sometimes as thin as a brushstroke.

Mainland China today is one of the most lightly policed countries anywhere. The number of police officers per capita is lower than in most Western countries, and few officers are armed with guns. China's police officers are therefore especially vulnerable when facing the country's newly well-armed criminals, including the highway robbers responsible for Officer Chang's death.

To maintain its strategic position in the battle against crime, the government instead implements draconian but intermittent campaigns that drag in tens of thousands of alleged suspects, hurry them through sketchy trials and pack thousands of them off to be executed, even though it is likely that at least some are innocent.

The official number of those executed in the campaigns is highly confidential state secret, but unofficial counts put the number of executions in 2001 alone at more than 5,000. Among those put to death were the two men allegedly involved in Officer Chang's death.

The periodic crackdowns have emerged as the central policing strategy, given that the mainland government currently lacks the resources infrastructure to increase the number of better-armed and better-trained police officers stationed at the local level.

Although tens of thousands of people have been put to death since the first nationwide anti-crime campaign began in 1983, Chinese academics point to government statistics showing that the Strike Hard campaigns do not have a lasting impact on crime, calling into question the ultimate usefulness of a policing strategy based on the use of forced confessions and the threat of the death penalty.

The periodic anticrime drives animate and give form to the most brutal aspect of China's formidable system of social controls, where police brutality is the norm, even expected, for the most part out of sight of the rest of the population. For the vast majority of citizens, the campaigns are a reassuring and correct response to the increasing levels of crime. But for others, they bring terror and despair.

China's average of six policemen per 10,000 residents, is low compared to the United States, where there are 25 policemen per 10,000 residents. To supplement its police force, China expects that its citizens, and in particular those on Communist Party neighborhood committees, will serve as watchdogs in the fight against crime.

So local police forces operate on minimal budgets, supplemented during non-campaign periods with money collected through the imposition of fines for a broad spectrum of illegal behavior.

Corruption Aids Criminals

The distinction between fines for illegal activity and protection payments made by criminals in return for immunity from prosecution is easy to lose in a system where access to the political and judicial systems is limited even as economic activity has skyrocketed.

Heartened by the protection they receive, criminals throughout the country have dared to take their revenge on witnesses and informants, knowing there will be few repercussions.

The government is concerned that in the face of potential retribution, the population will no longer be willing to blow the whistle on suspects, and that the entire network of citizen informers will collapse, overwhelming the police with work.

When the press talks about the campaigns 'puncturing' the puffed up arrogance of the criminals,' they are trying to reassure the populace that the police are in control, says Murray Scot Tanner, an associate professor of political science at Western Michigan University who does research on anticrime drives in post-Mao China.

In many ways, Officer Chang's death was just as much the product of China's poorly staffed, underfinanced police force and the campaign-style policing it is based on, as it was of the growth in armed criminal activity.

When the Taigu police station received the distress call from the county's emergency dispatcher, Officer Chang hurried to the scene and found the victim at the side of the road, but the robbers had disappeared. His superiors argue that he was authorized only to give emergency assistance to the victim and to secure the area for well-armed investigators who were also on their way. But interviews with those at the scene of the crime, and his superiors, suggest that he clearly wanted to do more.

He parked his unmarked car on the same stretch of road where the first robbery had been committed and opened the hood, pretending to seek the source of engine trouble. The first robbery victim stood together with him by the hood, while the back of the car was guarded by a part-time employee from the police station. Soon after they spotted two crouching figures running along a ditch beside the road and towards the car: the robbers had apparently come back.

Officer Chang came around the front of the car and brandished the iron rod he had brought with him from the station house. One of the robbers in masks fired at him with a shotgun, wounding him in the arm. Officer Chang swung the bar again, and the robber emptied the gun's second barrel into his chest. He died while being taken to the hospital.

Even at its height in May, the Strike Hard campaign may not have been directly responsible for the risks Officer Chang took, but the campaigns do urge police officers to arrest criminals and close cases at a rapid pace and in an atmosphere of intense competition.

As is always the case in China, Taigu's police chief is appointed to office by local Communist Party officials whose careers suffer if the area under their control performs badly during politically motivated campaigns. Local officials often mandate arrest and conviction targets for police stations to meet during campaigns.

The central government does not set quotas, but county-level officials do, says LIU Renwen, a lawyer who analyses the campaigns' significance from his post at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Law in Beijing.

When questioned about the significance of the Strike Hard campaign in driving Officer Chang to go beyond the call of duty, the local deputy police chief gave an emphatic answer. Undoubtedly! he replied.

HU Xiaoguang, who had traveled from the Shanxi Public Security Department in the provincial capital to supervise a reporter's interview of the slain officer's wife, Ms Han, said, There's a strong sense of pride between provinces, and we compare ourselves to each other.

During the current Strike Hard campaign, the percentage of Chinese policemen killed while on duty has spiked. The death rate was already significantly higher than that of the US police force, and as much as 10 times higher than the death rate in the period before the death of Chairman MAO Zedong.

The government and its police force on the ground increasingly faces criminals who are well-armed with guns sourced either from Vietnam or elsewhere in Southeast Asia, or from illegal factories at home. But the central authorities continue to shy away from arming the ill-educated, poorly paid police rank and file: they are anxious about a potential rise in the number of extrajudicial killings and other crimes by policemen with ties to local criminal groups, and deeply concerned that armed police officers could take their communities' side against the center in cases of local unrest.

Only the People's Armed Police is armed with modern firearms. The force is a national paramilitary group responsible for guarding government offices, patrolling its borders and putting down riots or uprisings. Even when the People's Armed Police is included in the total, China still only has 50 percent of the police force per capita maintained by the United States. The regular military does not ordinarily intervene in routine criminal matters assigned to the police.

First Crackdown by DENG

The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (1903-97), who oversaw the initial phase of the social and economic transformation that continues to this day, implemented the first Strike Hard campaign in 1983 to reassert government control over a society as the ubiquitous network of party members and inquisitive neighborhood committees lost their oversight over the activities of the country's vast and ever more mobile population.

During the first campaign, groups of convicts were put to death throughout the country, often scores in a single place in one day. Scholars have since calculated that during the campaign (1983-86), more than 30,000 people were sentenced and put to death.

In the fifteen years since the end of the first campaign, dozens of local and regional campaigns have been implemented, and judicial executions have risen to levels far greater than those of the Ching dynasty (1644-1911). This year's campaign is the third to be implemented at a national level, after that of 1996.

A majority of the general public in China would argue that the near-certainty of severe punishment and the increased chances of arrest during Strike Hard campaigns forces would-be criminals to curtail their illegal activities. But government statistics studied by Chinese academics suggest that career criminals have learned to lie low until the campaigns are over and the police, worn out, relax back into old patterns.

Mr. Liu, the lawyer who studies the campaigns, notes that soon after the end of the 1996 campaign, the number of criminal cases began to rise, and by September 1997, monthly crime rates had returned to their pre-campaign level.

The same will happen after this campaign, he said. If you expect the crime rate to go down after such a campaign, it won't work. Crimes have social causes.

Besides being ineffective, the campaigns often bring with them abuses of power, particularly in forcing confessions from suspects to fulfill arrest and conviction quotas.

Torture and Conviction

In a private room at the back of a restaurant in Dashiqiao, the industrial town in China's gray northeast where he was born, LI Huawei, 38, pushes back his hair to reveal a hairless indentation, left there after he was struck by a policeman's stick. It is lasting reminder of the three days of torture he endured before confessing to a crime he had not committed.

One day in October 1986 Mr. Li returned home after work to find that his 21-year-old wife had been murdered, nearly decapitated by someone wielding a butcher knife. He briefly embraced her and then went for help.

Nearly three months later, as the first major Strike Hard campaign was winding to a close, he was seized without warning, handcuffed and dragged in to the local police station. WANG Chengyou, then the local police chief and now a judge, told a Liaoning newspaper this year that the police had arrested Mr. Li because the case needed to be solved by the end of the year.

He was made to stand for hours during the interrogation. When I wouldn't confess, they made me lean my head against the wall with my hands cuffed behind me, Mr. Li said, showing a reporter how he had been forced to stand two feet away from the wall to concentrate much of his weight on his head. He said sweat poured from his face and puddled beneath him even in the icy cold room.

Occasionally, when he was nearing collapse, the police would give him permission to sit, handcuffed to a chair, and before beginning the interrogation anew.

In the middle of the third night, when he could take no more, he pushed himself away from the wall and stood. He was immediately struck to the ground with a truncheon, and lay dazed.

Such brutal police behavior is technically illegal in China but almost universally tolerated, as prosecutions tend to rely on confessions rather than on the introduction physical evidence. Sophisticated analysis of physical evidence, such as DNA analysis, as a means of solving crimes is still very rare.

As far as we can tell, confessions from torture spike higher during anticrime campaigns as lower level officials are compelled to generate criminals on short notice, says Mr. Tanner, the scholar.

A report by the Supreme People's Procuracy stated that torture cases reached their highest level in six years during the 1996 Strike Hard campaign.

When Mr. Li had recovered his wits after the blow, the chief investigator threatened him further, fabricating a story about testimony from his mother that he had confessed to her and threatening the arrest of his family as accomplices to the crime if he did not confess. Sleepless for three days, and hungry, he decided at least to save his family if he could not retrieve his own life.

I decided this was my fate, Mr. Li recalled, and to live had no meaning. My family was already broken, my wife dead, and if I confessed, nothing more would happen to my family.

He sat, broken, responding yes to the investigator's account of how Mr. Li had hacked at his pregnant wife and stabbed his unborn child. He was then held in a detention center, where he spent three years with his feet were locked into 10-pound shackles.

Mr. Li was found guilty and sentenced to death in late 1989, although the police had uncovered fingerprints on the knife and a footprint on a bedsheet in the room clear enough to identify the brand of shoe, neither of which were similar to those of Mr. Li.

In tacit acknowledgment that the case against him was clearly flawed, the court suspended his death sentence for two years, a reprieve that usually means the sentence will later be reduced to life in prison.

Mr. Li could conceivably have remained in prison indefinitely. But in July 2000, a man arrested for an unrelated murder confessed to the killing of Mr. Li's wife fourteen years before. The murderer had been a 17-year-old high school student and neighbor of Mr. Li's at the time. The man's fingerprints matched those on file taken from the knife used to kill Mr. Li's wife.

Mr. Li was released on bail after eight more months, but will not be able to clear his name until his wife's murderer has been executed sometime in the next several months

Despite a number of similar cases of wrongful conviction, imprisonment and execution, most mainland citizens are not swayed by the argument that innocent people are being sentenced to death in the current Strike Hard campaign, perhaps unsurprisingly given the lack of public debate in the state-controlled news media. Instead, most Chinese focus more on seizing new economic opportunities than on reflecting on possible injustices.

I think there are very, very few cases of innocent people who are executed, and, anyway, that's better than letting some criminals get away to harm other people, said LI Boyu, a 19-year-old college student drinking tea at a fashionable cafe in the university neighborhood of Shanghai. In China, the interests of the nation or the community are always more important than the interests of the individual.

In fact, she says, there have been cases involving crimes like corruption and embezzlement, in which people have been received terms of life imprisonment when she thought they should have been executed.

They are the termites of society, she says, her voice soft and high. They deserve the death penalty.

Such sentiments are easy to find in China, where a widespread fear of social chaos, born of experience, and a deeper Confucian yearning for governance by a strong central authority still hold sway. These sentiments are not necessarily surprising in a society where much of the population is undereducated and poor, and can be portrayed as representing a latent threat to order. Ms. Li (no relation to Mr. Li) says she believes that the great tides of migrant workers who come from the countryside into the cities to look for work, and are publicly blamed for much of China's crime, are the greatest threat to social stability.

For her and her peers, who have come of age during a time of unparalleled economic expansion in China, the mainland is a place of opportunity, not oppression, and the Communist Party is solely responsible for creating the environment in which they now prosper.

If public security is good, ordinary people can live peacefully, she said, then cited an old Chinese saying: Kill one to warn a hundred. (Laurel Mittenthal)