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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

In China, Crime Is on the Rise, But Statistics Remain Scarce

May 30, 2011

In June 2010, hours after her students went home, Sunny Shi, the principal at a kindergarten in Shanghai's Pudong district, was bludgeoned to death in her office. The suspect was another school employee.

Officially, it was as if the murder never happened. Not a word was reported publicly by Shanghai police or local media. As talk circulated among parents, the school's administrators offered trauma counseling but requested their silence. "Now the case is under police investigation," the chief administrator said by email, and "we regret that we cannot provide any details."

The treatment of this case was not unusual. All across China, authorities are thought to hush up episodes like Ms. Shi's killing, which explains in large part why no one knows how much crime occurs in the world's most populous nation. But few doubt that crime is increasing as economic growth divides rich from poor and China permits more personal mobility.

"In the era of Mao, China was known as a virtually crime-free society," says Steven F. Messner, a University of Albany sociology professor who studies criminality. "To get rich is glorious" is the philosophy today, he added, "but there would be a darker side in terms of crime."

China's national crime statistics show a sharp escalation in cases over the past decade, led in particular by nonviolent larceny, like bicycle theft. But the official numbers also point to steep declines in violent crime, with the murder rate dropping by half between 2000 and 2009.

Experts consider China's crime statistics both problematic and politicized. They also generally agree that the country remains safe by Western standards. Dark streets don't imply danger here.

Evidence abounds, however, that the Communist Party leadership's ideal of a "harmonious society" remains a target, not the reality. In China's growing cities, aluminum bars over windows and doors make most apartments resemble jails.

Anxious about kidnapping, China's newly wealthy often drive bullet-proof Land Rovers and hire kung fu masters as security agents.

Television contributes a fear factor with real-crime shows. China Central Television says its law-and-order channel grabs more viewers than its sports stations. Every day, CCTV's one-hour documentary "Legal Report" follows detectives as they crack sensational abduction, extortion and robbery cases.

Its coverage of a spate of apparently random attacks on seven women this year in Hebei province, for instance, featured the nighttime capture of 23-year-old Zhang Yun-shuai. He was led to a subsequent interview cuffed at the wrists and ankles, where he tilted his head and muttered, "because women break my heart."

A popular notion holds that the censors permit these shows about China's criminal underworld because they allow the leadership to demonstrate how the pervasive surveillance of the government equates to swift justice.

Canadian Debra O'Brien got an up-close look at China's criminal justice system after her 22-year-old daughter Diana was stabbed to death three years ago in Shanghai, a bombshell case just weeks before the start of the 2008 Olympics. Authorities quickly won a confession from Chen Jun, a penniless 18-year-old. Mr. Chen admitted he struggled with the aspiring model during his bungled attempt to burgle her apartment.

Ms. O'Brien left impressed. She received extensive briefings by senior police and personal copies of forensic photos. She had a face-to-face with the apologetic killer.

"It was all shocking and horrific, but everything was done really respectfully and transparently," Ms. O'Brien said by telephone.

But the public wasn't offered many details. Ms. O'Brien herself admits she isn't sure of what happened to Mr. Chen but believes he became eligible for release two months ago. Mr. Chen's lawyer says he is serving life in prison.

Pi Yijun, a professor of criminal justice at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, says that he sees crime rising and getting more violent, which he attributes to anger and frustration among society's have-nots.

But in a rare 2004 survey of crime victimization, centered on the northern city Tianjin, Mr. Messner found that few people were touched personally by crimes worse than a stolen bicycle. He credits traditional features of Chinese society.

—Bai Lin and Yang Jie contributed to this article.
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