Q&A: Crime and the Chinese Dream

Beijing (LA Review of Books) – In southern China, the rural town of Fang pulled itself out of poverty thanks to a simple scam. “Cake uncles” approached bakeries outside their hometown to deliver cakes, then faked the receipts and billed for more cakes than they actually sold.

According to Crime and the Chinese Dreamedited by a leading criminologist on China, Børge Bakken, cake uncles and other working class people have turned to illicit schemes in pursuit of the “Chinese Dream” – a modern fixation with economic success, intertwined with nationalism. The collection is a collaboration between Bakken and some of his former top doctoral students at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). (Bakken was Director of the Criminology Program at HKU from 2008 to 2013, and is currently a visiting fellow at the Department of Social and Political Change at Australian National University.) Researchers spent many months, in one case over a year, in mainland China conducting field work, immersed among the country’s most marginalized people.

In a country where the inner workings of the justice system is largely secretive and the official crime rate is suspiciously low, many scholars assume the actual crime rate is much higher, but have limited means to provide a clearer picture.

We do know that China’s poor are over-represented as both the offenders and the victims of crime. This collection of new case studies, paired with Bakken’s excellent introduction, sheds light on the lengths that some people are willing to go to climb out of the dreaded lowest tiers of Chinese society.

I chatted with Bakken about the book’s key takeaways:

The book compares the idea of the “Chinese Dream” to the “American Dream.” What do you think are the main similarities and differences between the Chinese and the American Dream?

Some say the Chinese Dream is a more nationalist dream, but in America there’s a saying that “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” So if you’re doing well, the biggest corporation is doing well and America is doing well, so it is actually a nationalistic agenda, too.

The individualist part of the Chinese dream, of course, is that Deng Xiaoping said, “Let some people get rich first” – so yes, there is a promise of individual prosperity in the Chinese Dream. But the problem in China is that after the 1990s some people did get rich first, and these people are still the ones getting rich, and the guanxi (connections) between these people are excluding others from moving up.

The distance between the rich and the poor in China is bigger than it ever was in the US. The Gini coefficient is over 46 points now and it’s going absolutely the wrong way. Guanxi is guanxi for the rich, and there’s little chance for the bottom to move up like there should be in the US.

The argument that China brought 600 million people out of poverty glosses over how the widening differences between the rich and poor have created a lot of social unrest and a lot of crime.

How does “strain theory” inform the book’s examination of low-level crime in China? What are the main sources of stress on non-wealthy Chinese citizens that may push some into a life of crime?

Strain theory is based on Robert Merton’s work. It’s one of the basic theories of criminology, saying that if you can’t achieve cultural norms in a legal way, you turn to illegal means to achieve cultural norms. And of course the cultural norm in America is to get rich.

And the norm in China after the 1980s also is that it’s glorious to get rich, even though that is very much against Maoist ideas. China is nominally a socialist society, but actually the means of production are owned by the oligarchy, and it’s even worse than Russia’s oligarchy.

It’s gotten to the point where people see the poor as vermin and authorities treat them with contempt and push them to the margins. When you see “low-level” people getting kicked out of Beijing in the winter, that’s brutal capitalism, based on the principal of betting on the strong rather than the weak. Even NGOs that tried to give these people shelter and food were shut down.

Our first chapter on corrupt doctors relates to collective strain theory. Low-paid Chinese doctors feel marginalized in society because they have to play the corruption game to stay afloat. But at the same time that most people are corrupt, it’s now very risky to be corrupt because there’s a political campaign going on against corruption.

What is “roving” crime? Can you explain what unique aspects of China’s governance makes it more likely that criminals will get away with conducting crimes outside of their hometowns?  

People who commit crimes in their own town or village are often caught by local police. That’s how Chinese police function. They only have jurisdiction at the local level. So these people take their fraudulent activities out of the village. Then they come back to the village with all the money. They are praised by the local cadres for bringing money into the village and they became heroes. Everyone wants to marry a “cake uncle.”

It was magnificent field work. The researcher was actually working in the rice fields and while he was working in the fields, everyone got acquainted with him and told him about all these things happening.

Why are low income people and migrant workers in China more likely to commit crimes, and what are the risks?

Inequality is highly correlated to crime rates internationally. The 300 million migrant workers in China have no chance of getting into the game. They don’t have the right to have their kids get an education where they are working. So I think there are now around 70 million left behind children.

There’s anxiety because there are serious consequences to crime, including the death penalty, but people such as fraudsters feel they have already tried every legal means to get rich. [In the cake uncle case], villagers tried to grow tobacco and cash crops and to raise pigs. Everything failed and they didn’t get rich, they didn’t even get by. So they turned to corruption.

[Author’s note: If criminals get caught and stand trial, they face China’s unusually high conviction rate of 99.9 percent.]

Doesn’t China want a bigger middle class to support a a shift from a manufacturing-powered economy to a consumer-based one?

Of course they do, but I’m not seeing the middle class prospering so much in the future. Because the oligarchs are the super rich, and they’re getting richer. Now these stinking rich say they’re not so rich – they’re middle class. What is rich then? How much do people need to feel safe?

The real middle class are of course in trouble and are also feeling marginalized in society. But they’re like the monkeys: they don’t see, hear or say anything because they want to stay out of trouble. They don’t want to get involved in any political activity.

There is also a very big class difference between the middle class and the poor classes, who are systematically prevented from moving up to middle class. There has been no meaningful reform of the hukou (household registration) system; migrant workers have very few rights when they move away from their hometowns.

Betting on the rich has created rapid growth in a short time, but I don’t think this can be sustained for a long time. I see in Macau many of the skyscrapers that have come up are standing empty. The vacancy rate in some areas of China can be 90 to 100 percent. This is an unstable economy.

Why do you think China’s low crime rates are falsified?

There’s no truth in Chinese crime rates at all. The government says now there is less crime now than in 1980, and it’s absolutely untrue. It goes against all criminology theories.

The absolute falsification of data started in 2002 when police stopped reporting unsolved murder cases. So they said they solved every murder case, which is actually an impossible thing in criminology.

I will write a book next year that will prove how falsification happens to a degree that it would be quite impossible in real life. Most rape cases in China are against migrant women but in all the published statistics, crimes on migrants are rarely mentioned.

One reason authorities may be falsifying murder rates is that most of the criminals who are executed are from the poor classes. It’s not good for a socialist state to admit that most people executed are from the poor class, although the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing has introduced poverty as mitigating factor when they are reviewing death penalty cases.

A chapter of the book discusses models of punishment and rehabilitation. What do you think would work to reduce crime rates among the poor in China?

Yes, Vincent Chan’s chapter looks at how China has a very punitive way of looking at inmates. But punishment has never made people turn away from crime. Crime is something that is structural. Punishment doesn’t prevent crimes from happening, particularly the death penalty. In the US, states with the death penalty have higher rates of murder. There’s lots of discussion about this.

Punishment is supposed to protect society against criminals, but in China the basic reasons for high violent crime rates are systematically concealed by the government, such as the extent of inequality.

Some police officers are open to change, and I know people high up in the police force who say they have read my articles. But of course they can’t implement anything Western because Western influence is seen as wuran, a type of social pollution.

China is not a liberal country, and there’s no proper criminology because the very good Chinese academics are getting censored way more than before.

If you can provide one take away from the research in this book, what would it be?

The takeaway is the rich get richer and the poor get prison. The poor have no chance. ∎

Editor’s Note: The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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