Chinese stability giving way to crime

September 26, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- While a gunman's recent killing spree in downtown Beijing has focused foreign attention on China's disintegrating social order, it's the story of Chuan Chunying that marked a turning point for many Chinese.

During the 1980s, Ms. Chuan was one of the country's most celebrated dancers, whose role in the musical "Silk Road Raindrops" made her a hugely popular artist.

Earlier this year, she hired some workers from Sichuan province to renovate her apartment in Beijing. With city dwellers increasingly engaged in commerce and other lucrative trades, impoverished out-of-towners have taken over most manual labor jobs in urban areas.

The two laborers noticed how well Ms. Chuan lived, they later told police after their arrest. Pretty soon they had caught a bad case of "red-eye disease" -- the Chinese term for envy.

On July 6, they knocked on Ms. Chuan's door. She let them in, probably thinking they might need some help to get back to their home province. Two hours later, her daughter came home from school to find the apartment robbed and her mother dead in a pool of blood.

Ms. Chuan's murder -- followed coincidentally that same day with the murder of her best friend and her best friend's son by robbers in their apartment -- shocked many Beijing residents, who suddenly found that crime had spread from the capital's dark alleys to their homes.

"It was really something that caused people to take notice," said a 58-year-old Beijing shopkeeper. "How can you feel safe when that can happen to such a nice person?"

Of course, crime is not new in China and lawlessness has been spreading for a couple of years, but Ms. Chuan's fame and the way she was murdered -- by people who knew her and in her own apartment -- drove home the fact that daily life in China has become scarier, less secure and less predictable.

Statistics, although fragmentary, seem to back up this feeling. Although crime rates are probably still lower than in the United States, the rate of increase shows a huge shift in Chinese society, which was once famous for its safe streets.

According to the Legal Daily newspaper, larcenies increased 20 percent during the first half of this year to 47,623 cases, while break-ins are up 21.7 percent to 160,376 cases. Overall crime is up 20 percent, the paper reported.

Although Ms. Chuan was stabbed to death, security officials believe that the spread of guns has contributed to the rise in murders. Gun ownership is illegal, but that law -- like most others -- is only sporadically enforced.

Chinese news media routinely trumpet huge police sweeps, such as one in Shandong province that netted 81,200 guns during the first eight months of the year, but even top security officials believe that these gestures are of little use.

"The security conditions in quite a few localities give cause for no optimism," said Meng Liankun, chairman of the National People's Congress' Internal and Judicial Affairs Committee in a speech last month. "And the grim security situation has not yet been fundamentally changed for the better."

While Mr. Meng's comments show that the government is concerned, its policies toward law enforcement are sometimes contradictory.

Police officers, for example, are paid about $35 a month, or one-tenth what a taxi driver can take home in Beijing. Even this small amount is routinely suspended by local governments that use the money on lavish feasts for cadres or get-rich-quick schemes. In Henan province last year, for example, police in one district were not paid for three months and in the end received 36 ducks each as compensation.

That sort of treatment can lead officers and soldiers to crack when conditions are ripe. The gunman who killed at least 10 people and wounded up to 70 in Beijing last week, for example, was an army officer who had been informed that his wife had died while undergoing a forced abortion, according to some reports.

Ms. Chuan's case provoked soul-searching in the Chinese press.

While Chinese society is closed toward outsiders -- making it hard, for example, for a newcomer to a city to win acceptance -- it's open toward the inside, wrote columnist Duan Gang. People, for example, trust others in their apartment building and often leave their doors open or locked only with a flimsy latch.

This works when people don't move around too much, Mr. Duan wrote, but now that traditional social immobility is giving way to a more fluid society, with millions of day laborers traveling from city to city looking for work, people's old habits make them vulnerable to crime.

"People don't have connections with each other as much. They don't have obligations to each other, so there's less fear of being recognized or caught. When they commit a crime, they think, 'Why not just kill them?' " said Ma Rong, a sociologist at Beijing University.

All this points to what Dr. Ma calls the government's biggest problem: "The fundamental issue in China isn't inflation or foreign investment or economic growth. The underlying issue is restoring moral order to society."

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