To get rich is glorious: Rising expectations, declining control, and escalating crime in contemporary China

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To get rich is glorious: Rising expectations, declining control, and escalating crime in contemporary China
International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology; London; Jun 1999; Xiaogang Deng; Ann Cordilia;





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Criminal statistics
Social change
Economic reform

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After the Communist revolution, China had a relatively low crime rate. However, since the economic reform of the late 1970s, the crime rate has increased considerably. Why has crime increased when most people are doing better economically and have access to many more opportunities to improve their lives?

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Copyright Sage Publications, Inc. Jun 1999

Abstract: After the Communist revolution, China had a relatively low crime rate. However,

since the economic reform of the late 1970s, the crime rate has increased considerably Why has crime increased when most people are doing better economically and have access to many more opportunities to improve their lives? Part of the reason may be found in the strong official emphasis on the radical new goal of making money, along with the unequal distribution and inadequate legal regulation of the means to economic success. Another factor is the loosening of formal and informal controls as a result of the changes in social structure that accompany economic reform. Control theory, developed to explain crime in Western societies, is applied in new ways in this article to fit the unique control structures that existed in prereform China.

Crime is a universal phenomenon. It is found in socialist as well as nonsocialist societies, developing as well as highly developed countries. However, the causes of crime and the societal patterns of control widely vary. In contrast to Western capitalist countries, for example, socialist countries have distinctive social institutions to mold thought and behavior and to reward compliance and punish deviance (Walder, 1986). In China, before the economic reform of the late 1970s, these unique socialist institutions were very effective (Troyer & Rojek, 1989; Whyte dc Parish,1984). However, since economic reform, they have been seriously weakened; this weakening has resulted in a significant increase in crime (Anderson & Gil,1994; Zhang & Deng,1998). The link between societal changes and spiraling crime rates in China poses important research questions that test the relevance of Western criminological theories to a non-Western society that is transforming from state socialism to a new economic and social system. The purpose of this article is to examine the unique characteristics of Chinese institutions of social control in the prereform era, the changes brought about by economic reform, and the impact of these changes on the crime rate.


When the communists took over in 1949, they were determined to create a stable, cohesive, egalitarian, and law-abiding society that would mark a decisive shift from the old society run by the nationalist government (MacFarquhar & Fairbank, 1987). Judging from official crime statistics, in some ways the communists were very successful. Between 1949 and 1979, when economic reform began, China was indeed a country with a very low crime rate (see Dutton, 1997; Guo, 1996; Yu, 1993). The period from 1951 to 1965 was one of the most crime-free periods in Chinese history. In 1950, when the newly established state cracked down hard on criminals left by the old society as well as on people who posed a political threat to the new socialist order, the overall crime rate was 90 per 100,000 people (as indicated in Table 1). From 1951 to 1965, the crime rates dropped, ranging from 29 to 65 per year per 100,000 population (Guo, 1996; Yu, 1993).

During a peak period of the Cultural Revolution, the criminal justice system was paralyzed; thus, data on crime rates were not collected from 1966 to 1971. From 1972 to 1976, the crime rate rose somewhat because (Dutton, 1997; Yu, 1993), due to the Cultural Revolution, the majority of young people had no school to attend or job to keep them occupied (see Liang & Shapiro,1983). Nevertheless, in comparison to later statistics, the crime rate remained relatively low.

Since China started its economic reforms in 1979, crime rates have increased significantly. In 1981, the overall annual crime rate rose to 89 per 100,000 people, and by 1991 it had risen to 215 per 100,000 (Guo, 1996). More striking, the volume of serious crimes increased by a wide margin (Curran, 1998; Dutton, 1997; Situ & Liu,1996). As shown in Table 2, homicides increased 71 %, assaults 171 %, robbery 353%, larceny 72%, serious theft 237%, fraud 239%, and counterfeiting 947%. White-collar crime also increased rapidly (Situ & Liu, 1996). One of the most notable trends is the dramatic rise in serious economic crimes, a curious development in a socialist country where financial gains traditionally were disdained. What factors have caused such a sudden surge in crime? The following section will attempt to answer this question.


Since the economic reform that began in 1979, Chinese society has changed dramatically. These changes are so fundamental, complex, and far reaching that the basic character of China has been and continues to be profoundly and irrevocably altered (Anderson & Gil, 1994). The causes for the rise in economic crime can be found in these societal changes. Two theories that have been used to explain crime in the West, anomie theory and control theory, are, with some modification, particularly suited to shed light on how changes in Chinese society since economic reform have led to a sharp upturn in economic crime. These theories explain both why people have a stronger motivation to commit crime as well as why they are freer to translate this motivation into action.


In the period before economic reform (1949 to 1979), Chinese society was in large measure egalitarian and homogeneous. To a remarkable degree, the whole society shared a collective conscience, that is, the people and the government agreed on a set of beliefs about what society should be like and how people should behave (Thompson, 1982). Chinese people were supposed to pursue only those goals that could contribute to the common good; an individualistic concern with personal gain was abhorred (Ci,1994). On one hand, the state carefully monitored its citizens to ensure that their words and actions were consistent with officially endorsed socialist norms and values. In addition, however, large segments of the population were genuinely converted into fervent followers of Mao's utopian communism, dedicated to the cause of liberating the whole of mankind (Madsen, 1984).

It is tempting to view the weakening of these altruistic values as an indication of social disorganization, a decline in the ability of society to influence people's beliefs and behavior. In China, this is true in part. But it also should be viewed from another perspective, as a response to new, officially sanctioned ideas about what people should value and how people should behave. In recent years, the Chinese government has propagated two somewhat contradictory norms regarding goals that its citizens should seek to attain. The traditional prereform goal of the establishment of a classless socialist society remains, as does the goal of the material betterment of society as a whole (Ci, 1994). To this has been added the new goal of individual economic advancement or, in the words of an official slogan, "to get rich is glorious" (Song, 1990, p. 197). The first goal, which is consistent with socialist values of selfless altruism, is difficult to reconcile with the second goal, which is completely consistent with capitalist and individualistic values (MacFarquhar & Fairbank, 1991).

Today, the government of China must promote economic development to maintain its legitimacy. Because the consensus is that traditional socialist methods will not bring about the desired level of development, the government has been urging people to follow an individualistic path: to get rich, open their minds to new ideas, "develop themselves as entrepreneurs by seizing business opportunities, to compete with each other" (White, 1993, p. 167), and to "learn to enjoy life by spending more" (Song,1990, p.197). It is no longer important that all people share in the wealth, at least not at first. Rather, the government promotes the idea of allowing a small number of people to become wealthier than others (Song, 1990). Large numbers of people in China have subscribed to the new, officially sanctioned goal of individual economic advancement, so much so that it seems that many Chinese are more obsessed with material comfort than their Western counterparts (Ci,1994). In fact, getting rich has emerged as the dominant ethos of the reform era.

This new ethos is reflected in a popular pun, "to look toward the future" that can also mean "to look toward money." In the prereform era, the Communist Party often exhorted people to "look toward the future," that is, toward the building of a socialist society in which everyone would prosper equally. In the reform era, people use the same phrase but it means looking forward to making money.l Link (1992) maintains that apart of the fervor of the race to make money stems from the fact that people are not sure how long the current reform will last, because the Party has a long track record of changing its policies. Thus, people may be adopting a get-it-while-you-can approach.

The new importance attached to attaining wealth in China mirrors Durkheim's observations of rapidly industrializing 19th-century France where economic achievement had "become the supreme end of individuals and societies alike.

Thereupon the appetites thus excited have become freed of any limiting authority" (as cited in Pfohl, 1994, p. 261). According to Durkheim (1984), the result is anomie, a state of deregulation in which society cannot restrain insatiable human aspirations, in this case, aspirations for money. When French society experienced radical social changes at the turn of l9th century, Durkheim found that anomie gave rise to an obsession with the making and spending of money. China is developing far more rapidly than France did. Vast fortunes are made in short periods of time, changing people's lives entirely. A kind of anomie has developed in which many people have unlimited economic ambition (that had been restrained by the ascetic pursuit of communism in Mao's era); they have not been socialized to believe that a certain amount of economic success is enough; for them, the desire for wealth has no boundaries.

Thus, in working to achieve glorious riches, Chinese people are following the societally mandated goal of accumulating wealth, enjoying consumption, and spending more. As Merton (1938) points out, however, in addition to having rules that mandate the ends for which people must strive, societies have rules that specify the appropriate means to achieve these ends. However, when a society puts an undue stress on the importance of the ends, people may be motivated to achieve them in any way possible, whether normative or not. This lack of control over norms regulating means is what accounts for the motivation to commit economic crime. The following three factors are important in leading people to use illegal means:

1. Some people lack access to legal means to economic success;

2. Illegal means may be more efficient than legal means; and

3. China has not yet developed legal guidelines for economic behavior appropriate to a market economy.

Legal opportunities to achieve economic success are not evenly distributed in society. In fact, in the reform era, Chinese society has become alarmingly unequal as party officials, private businessmen, and corporate managers in foreign-owned companies have accumulated substantial wealth. Those without power and political connections have minimal access to lawful avenues to riches. In fact, people with few skills and few connections compete fiercely for an inadequate number of jobs. If such people are strongly committed to the officially sanctioned goal of economic success, they may be motivated to "innovate," that is, to use the means that are available to them. They can commit blue-collar economic crime, such as burglary or robbery, which does not require position or connections or any resources except strength and willingness to take a risk. Indeed, the crime statistics reveal that robbery, an indisputably blue-collar crime, has increased drastically since reform (Guo, 1996).

Migrant farmers are a good example of the types of people who are motivated to innovate by committing blue-collar economic crime. The traditional ways of making a living for farmers have been disturbed. Economic reforms have improved agricultural productivity, reducing the number of people who can find agricultural work. As a result, millions of farmers are unemployed (Mackerras, Taneja, & Young, 1993). These farmers are drawn to the cities because of the substantial income gap between urban and rural residents. In 1996, the average per capita income for urban residents was U.S. $590, whereas it was only U.S. $235 for rural residents (Curran, 1998). Once in the city, migrant farmers see firsthand the better living standard of urban residents and they may be dazzled by the high level of material comfort enjoyed by the newly rich. In addition, through the media they are exposed to luxurious material products from the West that are available to those with money. Their opportunities for material success, however, are restricted because they do not possess the urban household registration cards that would enable them to work and reside legally. In addition, their lack of education and employable skills further limit them to jobs with low pay, low security, and low or no benefits. Because their disadvantaged status in the city prevents them from achieving their goal of making money, many farmers are motivated to turn to illegal means. In fact, it is known that a considerable amount of urban crime is committed by migrant farmers (Curran,1998; Dutton,1997; Yu,1993). Nationally, they commit more than 50% of all crimes (Dutton,1997) and in some coastal areas this number rises to 70% (Yu, 1993).

People who are disadvantaged are not the only ones who commit economic crime. Those who are well placed in society and have access to legal means to make money are also highly involved. Because, in a state of anomie, using legal means is less important than achieving the goal of economic success, and because aspirations for success have increased vastly, even those with access to legal means may be motivated to use illegal means when they are more efficient. This is especially true for high ranking officials who control important resources, yet are not subject to accountability by the media or by the voters. Frequently, these officials use their power for personal gain: they forgive debts and taxes, they grant illegal loans, and they approve real estate deals in exchange for what is popularly called "money of convenience," and "tea money" (Lieberthal, 1995, p. 268; see also Calhoun,1994).2 Furthermore, many children of elite officials use their family connections to become super rich overnight by using their parents' connections to obtain inside information, to get difficult-to-obtain licenses, to help businessmen close lucrative deals, and to smuggle weapons and liquors (Chu & Ju, 1993). People refer to this new breed of tycoon as the "Princes' party." According to Walder (1996, p. I 1), such official corruption has created a pervasive sense of injustice in China, has significantly eroded public trust, and has caused "the legitimacy of the regime to sink to one of its lowest points" in history.

Even if people are motivated to obey the law on their path to achieving wealth, they may find that the system of law that guides economic behavior is inadequate.

China's long tradition of distrust for formal law and its underdeveloped legal system thus contribute to the rejection of legal means (Troyer,1989a). The laws from the planned economy era are very vague. They frequently fail to deal realistically with the complicated situations that the business person operating in a marketoriented economy will encounter. In addition, because criminal laws from the socialist era did not define clearly economic crimes such as speculation, corruption, or smuggling, the boundary between legal and illegal behavior is often blurry (see Ministry of Public Security and the Chinese University of Public Security, 1990, pp. 77-84). Finally, because of the sharply declining resources in the hands of the central government, the criminal justice system is poorly funded and does not have the resources to enforce rigorously even the laws that do exist.


Thus far, we have discussed motivation to commit crime. However, even if an individual who aspires to the accumulation of wealth is motivated to violate norms about how to achieve that wealth, he or she will not necessarily translate that motivation into a criminal act. Control theorists demonstrate that society has ways of discouraging deviant behavior, even in the face of strong motivation. However, when these methods of control lose their hold, then people are freed to commit deviant acts. We will analyze the situation in China using Hirschi's ( 1969) ideas on social bonding.

Control theory assumes that "delinquent acts result when the individual's bond to society is weak or broken" (Hirschi, 1969, p. 16). Hirschi identifies four ways in which social bonds restrain people from engaging in deviant behavior. Three of these mechanisms (commitment, attachment, and belief) are relevant here. We compare prereform China with postreform China on these three dimensions of social bonding. It is the lowering of the level of social bonding that explains why individuals in postreform China are freed to perform deviant acts, that is, to turn their criminal motivation into an actual crime.

Commitment is the rational element of the control process in which individuals calculate the costs and benefits of their actions. It assumes that "the organization of society is such that the interests of most persons would be endangered if they were to engage in criminal acts" (Hirschi, 1969, pp. 20-21). If people are rewarded for conformity, they will be reluctant to jeopardize their future by deviating (Pfohl, 1994).

Attachment refers to a person's sensitivity to the opinions and needs of others. According to Hirschi (1969), "If a person does not care about the wishes and expectations of other people-that is, if he is insensitive to the opinions of others-then he is to that extent not bound by the norms. He is free to deviate" (p. 18). On the other hand, if people have a strong sense of attachment, they care what others think and have a great stake in maintaining the respect of the people with whom they associate (Pfohl, 1994).

Belief refers to acceptance of the norms of society as legitimate. The concept of belief in social bonding is defined as the endorsement of conventional values and norms, especially the belief that society's rules are morally correct and should be obeyed (see Akers, 1994, p. 118).

Which social bonds are most important in controlling human behavior? Although commitment, attachment, and belief are important results of social bonding in the West as well as in China, we argue here that the nature of the social bonds that controlled people in prereform China are unique and not found in the West (also see Deng, Zhang, & Cordilia, 1998; Troyer, 1989b; Walder, 1986; Whyte & Parish,1984). Prereform China had one of "the most thoroughly organized and effective system[s] of grassroots social control in the world. . . unparalleled even in the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe" (Walder, 1992, p. 103).

Institutions such as the government and the Communist Party significantly influenced people's lives through social control mechanisms that regularly indoctrinated people in socialist norms and systematically monitored, recorded, reported, rewarded, and punished people's behavior (Walder, 1986).


When the communists took over in 1949, they began to build a society based on a planned economy and on party organization-the two central pillars of any socialist state (Walder,1995). Following the Soviet model of development, China quickly completed the process of nationalization of private industry and commerce, and collectivization of agriculture. The centralized economy gave the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) effective control of most of the significant resources of society (Mackerras et al.,1993). At the same time, the CCP presented itself as the creator of the new state and the sole body able to lead China into communism. In addition to assuming a leadership role in the state structure, the CCP established itself at the top of the hierarchical apparatus in the workplace and the neighborhood (Deng et al., 1998; Shaw, 1996; Walder, 1986).

The workplace is a key element of the vertical organizational framework through which the state rules over its citizens (Troyer, 1989b; Walder, 1986; Whyte & Parish,1984). Under the planned economy, the significance of the workplace in China went well beyond the job itself. A Chinese employer was not simply a provider of employment; he also acted as a welfare agency and a branch of government (Walder, 1995), responsible for supplying medical care, child care, housing, pensions, and lifetime employment as well as authorizing travel and job transfers (Shaw, 1996). Through its workplace organization, the party state controlled so many essential resources and had such ample scope for rewarding and punishing people that its influence penetrated deeply into people's lives. It was able, for example, to extend its area of control to individual employees' behavior on as well as off the job; everyday actions, "personal ethics . lifestyle problems and political acts or thoughts" were under scrutiny by employers (Shaw,1996, p. 111). Authorities in the workplace used various techniques to punish deviant behavior, such as individual exhortations, public criticism, and recording misbehavior in one's permanent file, a move that could affect one's life chances significantly (Shaw, 1996).

The workplace was also closely connected to the police and court systems (Shaw, 1996; Whyte & Parish, 1984). Each work unit had a security officer who worked closely with the police and the courts. For instance, when arrested or imprisoned employees were released by the police, security officers monitored their behavior and contacted the police if they suspected serious criminal involvement (Deng et al., 1998). Even in cases where employees had not yet had contact with the police or courts, work unit personnel concerned themselves with early signs of deviant behavior. If an employee was thought to be heading for trouble, his colleagues were likely to offer him "friendly advice," the Youth League chief may have had "heart-to-heart talks" with him, and the party secretary in the work unit may have assigned him to participate in moral education meetings. In addition to controlling deviant behavior after the fact, the workplace was the site of campaigns for teaching political doctrine. It played a crucial role in an adult socialization process that helped individuals internalize beliefs consistent with the current doctrines of the Party.

The vertical organizational control to which individuals in prereform China were subject was reinforced by horizontal informal control by coworkers. People tended to have strong attachments to coworkers; they expected to be with these people for their entire working lives. Though they might be friends, an individual's workmates were charged with watching his or her behavior, reporting it if it was deviant, and helping him or her to reform. Because it was difficult to change jobs, individuals tended to be completely encapsulated by vertical and horizontal control within the workplace (for the notion of encapsulation, see Shue, 1989; White, 1993).

The neighborhood further reinforced the workplace control system. In prereform China, nearly all houses were controlled by the workplace, and almost none were for rent or sale. A person's residence was usually determined by his or her workplace. Neighbors were likely to be coworkers or bosses, and there was little opportunity to get away from them by moving to another neighborhood. In such a situation where living quarters were small, privacy was minimal, and much of one's life was visible to coworkers, individuals tended to be very sensitive to the consequences of any deviant behavior (Shaw, 1996). In addition, on the positive side, daily face-to-face contacts with colleagues and neighbors often forged a sense of solidarity and shared community norms and values that kept individuals from criminal and deviant acts (Whyte & Parish, 1984).

Informal control by observant neighbors was supplemented by the slightly more formal control of the neighborhood committee (Shaw, 1996; Troyer, 1989b). A neighborhood committee is a social body organized and controlled by the government, but its members are not formal government employees; rather, most of them are retired persons or housewives who are active in community affairs (see Zhang et al., 1996). The major tasks of the neighborhood committee include safeguarding the public, resolving conflicts within families, and publicizing state policies. Because members of the committee have daily contact with residents and are actively involved in the neighborhood watch programs, they can detect early signs of deviance and intervene immediately, rather than waiting for the deviance to become serious enough for police involvement. If minor deviant acts occur, they may criticize those involved at the neighborhood meeting; if the deviant acts are more serious, they may contact the police (Troyer, 1989b).


Belief in prereform China has some unique characteristics. First, under Mao, the beliefs of the Chinese people were distinctively homogeneous; they had what Durkheim (1984) called "collective conscience." The whole country had the common goal of socialism to pursue, a single set of officially endorsed social norms to observe, one party to be guided by, and a great leader to revere. Why did people believe in and so faithfully obey the norms of society? According to Piaget, "it is not the obligatory character of the rule laid down by an individual that makes us respect this individual, it is the respect we feel for the individual that makes us regard as obligatory the rule he lays down"(as cited in Hirschi,1969, p. 29). It was the faith in a god-like Chairman Mao, the religious respect accorded to his thoughts, that was the basis for China's prereform collective conscience.

Second, political ideology dominated every corner of the society and became the sole standard of career advancement. Even students' admission to college was primarily based on ideology (Shirk,1984). This aspect of ideological dominance is characteristic of state socialism because "communist systems, more than any other regimes, are idiocratic: they rely on an explicit and systematized ideology which functions to legitimize the regime, justify the Party's monopoly of power. . " (White, 1993, p. 148).

Third, significant efforts were made to promote new socialist values and norms while eradicating traditional values and norms. In Mao's view, socialist norms should encourage individuals to serve the people with selfless altruism, strive for the collective welfare and egalitarianism, and disdain personal gain and selfishness (Ci, 1994). Numerous nationwide campaigns were launched to enforce conformity to narrowly defined socialist cultural and moral values (MacFarquhar & Fairbank, 1991). Between campaigns, socialist values were continually reinforced through the controlled media and through political study groups at work units and in neighborhoods (Whyte & Parish, 1984). During periods of high political fervor, idealism was so widespread and intense that large numbers of people were genuinely more concerned with the public good and the moral implications of their behavior than with economic gain for themselves or their families (Ci, 1994). Some even donated their life savings to the Party, voluntarily refused to have a raise in salary, or declined to leave the country to inherit their family wealth in the West. Although their living standards were extremely low (meat, eggs, grain, and even vegetables were rationed), most people tended to be content with what they had. They had been provided with a utopian vision of a materially advanced society in which wealth would be shared equally; this vision of the future justified the hard work and suffering of the present.

Apart from promoting socialist values, Mao believed that "if you do not destroy (the old), you do not establish (the new)" (Chu & Ju,1993, p.12). Thus, in addition to creating new values, concerted efforts were made to eliminate traditional values (Harding, 1991). During the Cultural Revolution, Mao asked the Chinese people to destroy anything and everything that was old, "reactionary," or bourgeois (Chu & Ju, 1993). Traditional religious practices were banned, ritual objects such as temples and statues were demolished, and even long hair, tight slacks, or high-heeled shoes were denigrated as "evidence of bourgeois culture" (Harding, 1991, p. 144). People were encouraged to violate traditional family values: they were pressured to criticize publicly their parents or spouses and even to sever ties with family members accused of politically incorrect activities. In the early 1970s, a nationwide campaign was launched to criticize Confucianism, a major part of the foundation of traditional culture.



"The more weakened the groups to which [the individual] belongs, the less he depends on them, the more he consequently depends only on himself and recognizes no other rules of conduct than what are founded on his private interest" (Hirschi, 1969, p. 16). Since 1976, China has transformed itself from a selfsufficient product economy to a planned-market economy, from an agricultural society to an industrial one, from a closed and cohesive to an open and more loosely integrated society, and from a homogeneous society to a heterogeneous one (Li, 1992). These changes have weakened the social bonds that shape people's commitment, attachment, and belief in society, and thus have had important effects on the ability of China to control its citizens.



The underlying logic of commitment is that people can benefit by following the "prevailing norms" whereas they may "stand to lose by deviating" (Pfohl, 1994, p. 207). Since economic reform, it is no longer clear that people will reap much benefit by acting in accordance with societal norms. In fact, there is a popular saying that "those who have guts tend to have too much food to enjoy while those who don't tend to die of hunger." This saying reflects the widespread belief in China that the more people dare to deviate, the more they stand to gain economically, whereas the more they follow the rules of socialist morality, the further they will fall behind.

Market-oriented economic reform has diminished the concentration of power in the hands of bureaucrats who thus have lost some of their ability to reward and punish conformity to socialist norms and beliefs (Walder, 1995). With shrinking budgets due to the waning of the planned economy, state-owned enterprises can no longer offer lifetime employment, low rent housing, and generous welfare benefits (White, 1993). Furthermore, as the state ceases to be the only employer in town, individuals can find jobs in nonstate sector companies that sometimes offer highly competitive wages or, alternately, they can start their own business. In addition, because market-oriented reforms require a relatively free flow of labor, the implementation of the household registration system has been relaxed; people no longer need a household registration card to purchase food. As a result, there are alternate methods of achieving desirable goals, such as getting a good apartment, especially if one has financial resources. Thus, people's dependence on the workplace in urban areas has been reduced.

Significant changes have also loosened the ability of the informal structure to control behavior. The formal system of party and state control in prereform China was coordinated with an informal structure of control by friends, neighbors, and coworkers who were called on to report deviance and to "help" people conform. A person's desire for the approval and respect of these people would restrain impulses to deviate. Today, however, attachment to others is less likely to restrain deviance for several reasons. First, as the legitimacy of the communist government is waning, the interface between formal and informal control structures has weakened; thus, friends and coworkers are less likely to be called on to help control deviance. Second, because there are different routes, other than political virtue, to career advancement, people are less careful about adhering to official policy and are less likely to be judgmental about deviation. Third, with the loosening of the household registration system, the opening of a housing market, and the growth of new jobs in the private sector, neighborhoods have become more heterogeneous and less stable; thus, people do not know their neighbors as well as they once did. Finally, it is now possible to escape one's old neighbors and coworkers by getting a new job and moving to a new neighborhood.

In rural areas, the weakening tie of migrant farmers to their villages and work units has become a major source of rising crime (Curran, 1998; Yu, 1993). As farmers leave their villages and their production brigades that were under the direct control of the party apparatus and the local government, they exchange a rural situation characterized by high formal and informal control for a mobile, often unstable, life in urban areas where they live outside of formal structures and, in fact, are not even officially recognized as existing.


According to Piaget (quoted in Hirschi, 1969, p. 30), to the degree that a person respects the rule givers, "he will accept the rules. Conversely, insofar as this respect is undermined, the rules will tend to lose their obligatory character." In prereform China, the ultimate rule giver was Chairman Mao who was popularly regarded as almost infallible. Since then, Mao has been publicly criticized and his successors have not inherited his mantle of infallibility. After conforming to socialist ideals for 30 years, people have become on one hand dissatisfied with the failure of Mao's promise of a socialist utopia (Ci, 1994) and, on the other, confused by the new and contradictory messages coming from the government, the increasing inequality in society, and widespread official corruption (White, 1996). Exposure to the West has also contributed to this serious identity crisis (Nathan, 1990; Rosen, 1992). Western influence has penetrated the social fabric of Chinese life: fashionable jeans and miniskirts have replaced the "uniforms of socialism"; Western films and music have taken center stage in young people's lives (Anderson & Gil, 1998). Ordinary people question whether China can survive in the modern world in competition with the West, and whether there is anything in Chinese culture itself worth saving. There is a despairing sense that the regime is incompetent and that Chinese culture is moribund (Nathan, 1990).

The decay of socialist ideology is characterized by a trend of depoliticalization, that is, the declining penetration of ideology into people's everyday lives (see White, 1993, pp. 151-152). The mechanisms of systematic political indoctrination have been dismantled, and where they still exist, they are not taken seriously.

Employees no longer have daily after-work "political study meetings," and students simply go through the motions in their political education classes. Because career advancement is now based on skill and education rather than political virtue, party workers have lost their relevance: people simply have stopped believing what their leaders try to preach (Chu & Ju, 1993; Shirk, 1984).

In this state of socialist ideological decay, it is difficult for China to fall back on its traditional values because they have been seriously damaged, especially during the Cultural Revolution. A recent longitudinal survey showed that more than 40 years of communist rule "succeeded in destroying the old, in a devastating manner unprecedented in Chinese history" (Chu & Ju, 1993, p. 311). Chu and Ju (1993) argue that China's traditional cultural values were "pillars" of Chinese society, but that this "psychological Great Wall" is in the process of crumbling (Chu & Ju, 1993, p. 311). Government officials openly state that China's "moral life, to some extent, is disorderly and chaotic. There are no widely accepted new norms and new rules either in public morality or professional ethics" (Ministry of Public Security and the Chinese University of Public Security,1990, p. 78). The low level of social morality has become such a problem that the government has launched several campaigns to lift the nation's "spiritual civilization" (Ministry of Public Security and the Chinese University of Public Security, 1990, p. 78).


Rising rates of crime pose a serious threat in a society that had become accustomed to high levels of law-abiding behavior among its citizens and to the sufficiency of informal mechanisms to control crime. In response, the Chinese government has adopted a "Comprehensive Treatment" approach to maintain social order (see Situ & Liu, 1996; Zhang et al., 1996). This approach includes swifter and more certain punishment and revival of informal controls, as well as crime prevention programs such as legal and moral education and the creation of jobs. In widely publicized trials, the government has punished some high ranking officials to demonstrate its determination to fight corruption. An example is the recent trial of former mayor Chen Xitong (News Analysis,1998). Several nationwide crackdown campaigns have been launched to "strike hard" at crime and to severely punish serious offenders (Situ & Liu, 1996). In addition to periodic campaigns, the government has sought to increase the ordinary levels of law enforcement. Along with the increase in formal controls, the government is also renewing some older informal social control programs such as Bang Jiao, a kind of community-based rehabilitation (Deng et al., 1998; Zhang et al., 1996). To prevent crime, the government has intensified programs of legal education that teach people about the law and its requirements. More fundamentally, it has attempted to revive traditional Confucian values to increase people's awareness of the appropriate balance between individualism and collective responsibilities (Friday,1998). However, it remains to be seen whether the government's efforts will be effective. The biggest challenge will be to create sufficient jobs for millions of unemployed migrant farmers who commit more than 50% of all criminal offenses when the resources of the central government are depleted and when, simultaneously, millions of urban residents are being fired from state-owned enterprises (Curran, 1998).


In this article it is argued that the rise in China's crime rate results from the massive social changes that have affected norms and values as well as the social structure. With regard to norms, the Chinese government has encouraged people to adopt the goal of individual economic success without fully socializing people into acceptance of societally approved means for attaining that success. This has resulted in motivating people to innovate, that is, to use illegal means to make money. With regard to social structure, economic reform has brought about a decline in the formal and informal structures that used to control people's attitudes and behavior. As a result, the social bonds that once restrained deviance have become looser and far less effective.

Our contributions to criminological theory are twofold. Social control in China has unique characteristics that are not stressed in the Western formulation of control theory. To capture the reality of China, we first broaden the conception of attachment and commitment beyond the family and school to include the workplace and neighborhood that, in socialist China, had strong links to the government and were major instruments of social control. Second, because China, like many socialist states, tends to be "idiocratic," that is, to "to rely on an explicit and systematized ideology to legitimize the regime" (White, 1993, p. 148), and because they tend to develop multiple formal mechanisms to socialize people into these beliefs, we focus more on the issue of ideology in restraining deviance.

However, our study is more impressionistic than empirical; further studies are necessary to test the relevance of this model.

The study of crime in China during its transition from state socialism raises questions that are fundamental in extending the scope of criminology beyond Western capitalist nations. China's transformation offers a unique opportunity to "examine the processes and consequences of transition from state socialism," and their effect on crime (Zhou, Tuma, & Moen, 1997, p. 339). There are several elements in China's transformation (Li, 1992), including the following: (a) the transition from a planned economy to a market socialist economy, (b) the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society, and (c) the transition from a homogeneous society to a heterogeneous one. The uniqueness of the Chinese case is that all of these changes are occurring at a very rapid rate contemporaneously.

This raises important questions for researchers trying to explain the sharp rise in crime. What are the major causes of crime? Is it economic development or the transition from a planned economy (see Shelley,1981)? Or are "the type of development, the rate of change, and the strength of the social prevention in a society" responsible for changing patterns of crime (Friday, 1998, p. 300; see also Adler, 1983)? Though corruption is a universal phenomenon, its sheer scale and pervasiveness in China require further theoretical exploration. For example, why does corruption become rampant when official control of scarce resources is actually declining, thus presumably decreasing the opportunities for corruption? Why is there wide variation in the degree of corruption among officials in similar positions? (see White, Howell, & Xiaoyuan, 1996). Future studies can explore these important theoretical questions.


We would like to thank Lening Zhang for his suggestions on the initial stage of this article.


1. The Chinese words for future and money are pronounced the same (qian).
2. In China, officials frequently use their official position for personal gain. If people applying for licenses, permits, and so forth, do not offer them money or gifts, officials can make it impossible for them to get their petition through the complicated bureaucratic channels. However, if "money of convenience" (fang bian qian) or "tea money" (cha qian), which in Chinese means extra money for officials to have a cup of tea, is paid, everything can be worked out quickly.


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[Author note]
Xiaogang Deng, Ph.D.

[Author note]
Department of Sociology University of Massachusetts-Boston 100 Morrissey Blvd. Boston, Massachusetts 02125-3393 USA
Ann Cordilia, Ph.D.

[Author note]
Department of Sociology University of Massachusetts-Boston 100 Morrissey Blvd. Boston, Massachusetts 02125-3393 USA

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