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Living in China

Law Enforcement and Crime in China

Crime rates in China are relative low — at least according to official statistics. The number of executions, on the other hand, is the highest in the world. This article takes a closer look at crime in China, different branches of law enforcement, as well as human rights issues in China.

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Crime in China

While actual crime rates are hard to come by, official figures show that the number of homicides, robberies, rapes, bombings, and gun-related crime in China has gone down drastically in the last fifteen years. It is, however, hard to tell if some of the crimes committed simply do not make it into these official statistics. In a 2009 study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, though, the homicide rate in China was also cited as being significantly lower than in a number of Western states, including the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

While violent crimes against foreigners are not particularly common, there are, however, some other types of crime in China that expats should be especially wary of, including pickpocketing and credit card scams.

Law and Punishment

The comparatively low crime rates — discounting breaches of intellectual property — are to some extent a product of strict laws and their even stricter enforcement. Please be aware that expats have to face the same consequences as Chinese nationals if they commit a crime in China. Drug use, possession, and especially trafficking are particularly serious crimes in China, with punishments including large fines, prison sentences, or even the death penalty.

The police have the right to detain you if they suspect you of any criminal activities, and random drug tests on foreign residents are not uncommon. Bring along your residence permit and passport wherever you go, as identity checks can happen at any time. Ideally, you should also leave copies of both at home.

In case you are accused of committing a crime in China, try to get in touch with your respective embassy as soon as possible. Also be aware that while posting bail is a theoretical possibility, it is hardly ever granted to foreign nationals. This may result in fairly long terms of detainment before a trial for a crime in China even begins.

Capital Punishment in China

The exact figure may be shrouded in darkness, but China does hold the sad record of the highest number of executions in the world — more than all other countries combined, according to Amnesty International. Estimates by the Dui Hua Foundation put the number of executions in China at around 2,400 in 2013, which would already signify a major reduction when compared to their 2003 estimates of about 10,000 people.

Of course, one could argue that the numbers have to be seen in relation to China’s extremely large population. The per capita rate of executions is indeed lower than in a number of other countries.

However, due to the facts that China regards the exact figure of executions as a state secret and that punishable offences include non-violent crimes such as fraud and embezzlement, there are many international voices against China’s policy regarding capital punishment. Among the local population, on the other hand, support for the death penalty remains high, particularly for violent crime in China.

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Law Enforcement in China

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) is the main agency responsible for local law enforcement in China. The ministry governs the local Public Security Bureaus (PSBs) around the country, which can be compared to police stations in other nations. Expats have to head to their local PSB in order to register their residence, for instance. Police officers from the local PSB typically wear blue uniforms.

The Ministry of State Security (MSS), on the other hand, is rather responsible for political security in the country. It also handles matters of foreign intelligence. Note that officers of the MSS have the same right as those of the PSB to detain anybody suspected of a crime in China that might threaten the security of the state.

In addition to the two ministries, the People’s Armed Police Force (CAPF) serves as the internal security force nationwide. Approximately 1.5 million members strong, its tasks include, among other things, responding to terrorist attacks, riots, or other emergencies, as well as guarding government facilities and persons of interest. You can recognize members of the CAPF by their green uniforms.

Established in 2001 in most main cities in mainland China, Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureaus are responsible for local, low-level offences in China, e.g. concerning matters of pollution, work safety, and so on. Also referred to as China’s Chengguan Para-Police, the agency and its officers have repeatedly been accused of “thuggish behavior” and abuse, particularly towards street vendors.

Limitations of Civil Liberties in China

Human rights are officially guaranteed in the Chinese constitution. However, it is not unheard of that these rights are, at times severely, restricted when they are perceived to conflict with the country’s so-called “social stability”.

That China keeps a tight rein on local access to the internet, for example, is hardly news. Foreign (and even some national) websites are blocked, particularly Western social media such as Facebook and Twitter. This internet censure is often referred to as the “Great Firewall of China”. In the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where ethnic tensions have been particularly high, internet access may even be blocked completely.

When not blocked, online activities are often closely monitored, and anyone who dares to speak out against the government in the perceived anonymity of the World Wide Web may face dire consequences. In September 2014, for example, blogger Ilam Tohti, an outspoken advocate of freedom of speech and information, was sentenced to prison for life. Allegedly, he was working towards the “separatism” of Xinjiang from China.

And this case is not an exception. A large number of journalists and human rights activists have been detained and sentenced under dubious charges. Due to these numbers, as well as China’s strict press censorship, Reporters Without Borders ranked China 175th out of 180 countries in their World Press Freedom Index in 2014.

Any demonstrations, parades, or other forms of large-scale assemblies need to be permitted first, which rarely happens in China, therefore once more restricting the people’s freedom of expression. Furthermore, the “one-child policy”, even in its relaxed form, continues to limit women’s rights, as does gender-based discrimination at work. You can find more in-depth information on human rights in China in general on the website of the Human Rights Watch.

For some expats, these harsh situations might be somewhat of a shock. It is important to understand the Chinese culture before you even move to China.

Updated on: December 11, 2019
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