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Date Posted: 21:32 03/02/2005

The centre cannot hold

Can the Chinese government control rampant crime and disorder?

ONE WOULD be forgiven for thinking that China and its government are currently in a bit of a malaise. Income gaps are getting wider and the poor are getting poorer, and in contrast, the middle classes are reaching a level of prosperity that – if historical precedents are anything to go by – will lead to a growing amount of grumbling and mischief-making, particularly when the inevitable economic downturn finally arrives. The environment is crumbling under the pressure of providing for 1.3 billion people, and an increasingly vociferous community of malcontents ranging from cheated shareholders to displaced villagers are finding the nerve to make a stand, not directly against the government itself, but in a fragmented, piecemeal fashion against local developers or enterprises – which is precisely the fashion one expects in a modern capitalist society that essentially has no centre, and where the symbolic cachet of demonstrating on Tian'anmen Square will under no circumstances be tolerated.

The government, of course, is still claiming to be the centre, and still hopes that its essentially well-meaning gestures about environmental protection and improving the lot of the rural community - as well as its Draconian campaigns against gambling, drug trafficking, internet pornography, youth immorality, or political apostacy - can be imposed on a massive scale. Peking, as Kafka once wrote, is just a dot on a dot, and usually, the government itself uses the same excuse, setting itself up as the moral bastion and blaming the country's ills on the unwillingness or inability of the provinces to implement its policies, or on factors that it claims are beyond its control, including the sort of geological disadvantages that cause natural disasters, its massive population and relative lack of resources, and the remoteness of countless rural communities in the west.

Gorgeous pouting PSB girls

Apart from that, we hear about the 'psychological time-bomb' brought about by the One Child Policy, by the pressures of finding work and looking after elderly parents, or simply by the violence of the country's economic and social transformations over the past two decades or so. With their world torn asunder, it is no surprise that a significant proportion of the population turn to 'evil cults', and the sort of mental stability that they tend to provide.

Criminals and murderers are rampaging through the country, if we are to believe the foreign press, and there is a general moral crisis, caused partly by the failure to impose the rule of law, or by the essential arbitrariness of government power, or perhaps by the deep cultural memories of desperation and squalor dating back centuries.

Nevertheless, the Public Security Bureau reassured the Chinese masses at a press conference held today, announcing that it would continue to conduct 'strike hard' campaigns in order to 'strengthen the people's feelings of security'. They will continue to strike hard against every kind of illegal activity.

The PSB says that while society 'remains stable', there are significant rises in a number of criminal activities, including 'explosions, murders, kidnappings and other serious and violent criminal cases', and mafia activities are rampant.

To paraphrase, the PSB says that this year, it will strengthen its operations when dealing with murder cases, and intensify the 'hard strikes against explosions, murders, kidnappings, robberies, and rapes', against the evil activities of criminal gangs, and against gambling and pornography and chaos. It will rest at nothing to improve social order on campuses and their environs, and thus resolve the prominent safety problems at schools and universities. It will also strike hard against the smuggling and stealing of oil, and the stealing and sabotage of electrical equipment.

The tone of the statement does not actually fill one with confidence. Still, in a survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics at the end of last year, more than 90% of the Chinese people polled said that they either felt 'safe' or 'basically safe', which was pretty much the same as a similar survey held by the NBS in 2003. The crisis being described by foreign reporters does not seem to be registering, at least among the 100,000 families throughout China's 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions that were invited to take part in the poll.

Asked what kind of problems worried them the most, 30% opted for 'crime' and 'public disorder', which is usually government code for the sort of protests and riots we saw in Hanyuan County at the end of October last year. More than 28% chose 'traffic accidents', 'demonstrating the pressure on safety by the growth in private cars in China'.

Asked what social problem they are most concerned about, almost 20,000 chose 'social morality problems”, followed by employment, corruption, education, the handling of salaries, public security, housing, relocation and environmental protection. There were more who chose education, salaries and environmental protection than in 2003, the last time the poll was conducted.

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