A policeman's idea of hell

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2005, 12:00am

In Pan Ling's classic book, Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise, life is described as an overlap of interests between corrupt officials and the mafia. Together, they profited against a backdrop of incompetent government, mayhem and crime.

The book should be recommended reading for anyone trying to understand China today. It would serve them well to have a good grasp of the social and economic conditions during the Republican period (1911-1949), which led to social decay and eventual breakdown. Presumably, it could never happen now, because of China's extensive and pervasive bureaucracy.

There are about 40 million officials in China today, out of a population of 1.3 billion. This makes government ever present. Most officials' income and expenses derive from fiscal budgets, while an estimated 5 million operate outside the circle, surviving solely on fees and fines they have collected. This means that one official is supported by every 26 people, making the government's administrative costs 25 per cent higher than in most western nations.

Attempts at change have exposed the depth of the problem. In Taole county, Ningxia Autonomous Region , there are 2,300 officials for a population of 32,000.

In Sichuan province, the Organisation Department surveyed 100 county governments and discovered that 20 per cent had heavy debt burdens, which rendered them incapable of operating their education, social welfare, water supply, agriculture and environmental protection departments.

While too many officials results in inefficiency, corruption and a vacuum of law and order, in China there are also too few police to keep order.

In fact, there are only 11 officers for every 10,000 people; phenomenally low compared with international standards. Most developed western nations see as essential a ratio of 30 police per 10,000 people.

China is facing its largest crime wave since 1949. Since the mid-1990s, crime has soared 800 per cent from the 1980s. Before 1993, street patrols were considered unnecessary. Now they are badly needed, but mismanagement and imbedded bureaucracy leave stations with insufficient manpower. Those officers who are around are demoralised, tired and ill-equipped.

Chongqing municipality, for example, has 30 million people and less than 30,000 police. An average station may have 180 officers, but with most on administrative duties, there are usually less than 30 left to go out on the streets. In Xian, the Fuguo district station has 11 officers, of which nine are either 'leaders' or administrative personnel supporting the leaders. That leaves only two to deal with real cases. However, one must handle propaganda and education, while the other is reportedly always sick. Of Xian's 19 police stations, Fuguo is not considered the worst.

Citizens reporting crimes find little in the way of support or an efficient reaction. Obviously, there are not enough police to deal with China's rising crime. However, by law, police are only required to carry out a full investigation into a suspected murder; anything else will remain unsolved. This has created a market for gangs to hire out thugs who can 'resolve' a dispute or guarantee some personal satisfaction to someone who has suffered a loss of face.

Rates vary, according to whether the person is to be 'fully handicapped' or 'partially handicapped'. In either case, the victims are unable to get police to investigate. As a result, a new police motto is increasingly heard in China: 'If nobody is killed, don't call us.'

But one should not be too disheartened. There are solutions aplenty. How about, for instance, firing all those surplus government officials, and re-employing them as police officers?

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing