JUST about the only ''crime'' Beijing's foreign residents normally have to worry about when changing money on the black market is getting ripped off by a sleight of hand artist. But when a European woman tried to exchange US$100 at Beijing's silk market a couple of weeks ago, she was not only short changed but was set upon by five men who kicked and punched her, accusing her of cheating them. The woman sought shelter in a nearby store but her attackers pursued her inside and continued their assault while the shop assistants and customers ignored the whole incident. While the woman was not seriously injured, just bruised and shaken, the incident is indicative of just how lawless and violent Beijing is becoming. Foreigners have traditionally been ''off limits'' in China; potential assailants know full well they are likely to get a much harsher sentence for attacking a foreigner than they would an ordinary Chinese citizen. Thus for a group of Chinese men to assault a foreign woman in broad daylight clearly shows just how the traditional restraints on criminal behaviour are eroding. ''There is definitely a sense that things are getting out of control here,'' said a young academic in Beijing. ''Virtually every day you can see a fight or argument on the streets, more and more people are carrying knives, even guns. It really is quite ascary situation out there.'' Violent crime, while still far from the levels seen in American cities, has been growing at an alarming rate over the last few years and is all the more noticeable in cities such as Beijing, which have traditionally enjoyed very low levels of crime. In China as a whole, crimes involving firearms increased by 52.6 per cent in the first 11 months of last year, compared with the same period in 1992; 275 police officers were killed and more than 8,120 injured in the line of duty last year, according to Public Security Ministry (PSM) statistics. Firearms have become remarkably easy to obtain in China, with both the army and the police force selling off arms on a wholesale basis. Huge, privately-run weapons markets have sprung up across the country. In the small rural market town of Baigou, just 100 kilometres south of Beijing, it is possible to buy anything from an air pistol to an AK-47, knives, truncheons, even standard police issue handcuffs. Many of the armed robberies which occur in the capital, such as the infamous 1992 Xizhimen shootout which left a dozen officers injured, use guns purchased from the Baigou market, police say. Despite persistent attempts to close it down, the market continues to do a thriving business. Not only is the amount of crime in China increasing, the variety and complexity of criminal activity is also on the rise. Drug trafficking, prostitution, highway banditry and kidnapping, crimes virtually unheard of a decade ago, are now commonplace. White collar crimes such as computer fraud, embezzlement and stock fraud are also on the increase and there is little the country's poorly-trained police can do to prevent these. Police are also having to deal with increasingly sophisticated criminals and domestic and international gangs, often with vast resources and a ruthless determination to get what they want. Faced with such a multitude of challenges, the PSM commissioned an exhaustive study of trends and developments in China's criminal activity. The newly completed five million-word report identifies key problems and suggests new ways of dealing with them, Xinhua (the New China News Agency) said in a report last week. Details of the report have been kept secret but there are already signs the police in Beijing are becoming more attuned to the needs of modern crime fighting. Foot patrols were introduced on an experimental basis in two Beijing districts last month and have generally been welcomed, both as a deterrent to street crime and as a more effective method of solving crimes. Previously, residents wanting to report a crime had to fill out a detailed report before the local constabulary would act, but with the foot patrols, residents say police can be on the scene within minutes. However, investigation methods continue to be crude and heavy handed, with officers routinely violating China's criminal procedure law in their determination to extract confessions. There is no presumption of innocence in China and suspects are often detained for months, even years, before being charged, let alone brought to court. That said, in the field of international co-operation on drug trafficking and other forms of smuggling, there has been a substantial improvement in the work of China's law enforcement officers, according to at least one senior United States official. US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard said in Beijing last month that China and the US had reached agreement on all the fundamental issues concerned with international smuggling, and had agreed to intensify their co-operation in fighting international crime. ''The Chinese Government views this problem with the same very great level of seriousness that we do,'' Mr Gelbard said. ''We are very comfortable with the actions they are undertaking but it is quite clear too that the problem is a severe one and we intend to seek more effective measures in the short and medium term.'' The multi-agency US mission to China led by Mr Gelbard included the assistant attorney-general for law enforcement, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, and top officials from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). One of the group said the attitude of Chinese law enforcement officials was more realistic and positive than in the past. China had tended to view narcotics as an ''internal problem'' which could be handled without much help from overseas. The troublesome ''goldfish case'', while continuing to cast a shadow over co-operation between the US and China on narcotics matters, is finally beginning to recede through the recent talks, according to another member of the delegation. Several years ago the Chinese Government permitted a witness to go to the US to testify in a major drug smuggling trial in which heroin had been hidden in goldfish. While in a US courtroom, the Chinese national asked for political asylum, which was granted - provoking a major dispute that almost ended all Sino-US co-operation on narcotics matters. But that trend has now been reversed, with co-operation spreading from the national level down to provincial levels, according to one of the Americans participating in the talks. Even prior to the high level mission, officials from several US government agencies, including the FBI and DEA, had been making low profile trips to China to meet a small number of Chinese officials anxious to upgrade law enforcement and to conduct training seminars. The overall impact of this relatively small body of officials is not easy to judge. Implementation of new methods is made more difficult by the Communist Party apparatus which often inhibits reform efforts by honest officers and certainly discourages toofrequent contact with foreign law enforcement officials. Just as Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji once asked a New York Times reporter not to keep referring to him as ''China's Gorbachev'', Chinese officers want to build up their expertise through contact with foreign colleagues, but find this something of a political liability to their careers.