The Chicago Tribune reports on recent public violence in China:

A series of grisly attacks in China, including school stabbings, a courthouse shooting and a slashing rampage on a train, have forced the public and officials to confront what experts say is the long-hidden problem of spiraling violent crime.

Criminologists at home and abroad say violent incidents in China have long been underreported by police, but it’s becoming harder for authorities to stifle news about the worst cases when ordinary people are quick to spread information via mobile phones and the Internet.

Some criminologists and sociologists are skeptical about China’s official crime statistics:

According to official statistics, violent crime in China jumped 10 percent last year, with 5.3 million reported cases of homicide, robbery, and rape. It was the first time since 2001 that violent crime increased, said the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in its Chinese Rule of Law Blue Book released in February.

Experts like Pi Yiyun, a professor of criminology at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, are skeptical about those figures.

Pi said he doesn’t know what the actual rates are, but he doesn’t think it’s plausible that violent crime was falling between 2001 and 2008. He said provincial or county level officials, not the central government, are likely misreporting their data.

“Many local officials believe the crime rate is just a number that can be randomly modified,” he said. “They tend to cover up the truth and report a false number, because a high crime rate might affect their chance of being promoted.”

He said the big jump in 2009 could be an attempt to bring the figures closer in line with the real situation.

Borge Bakken, an expert on Chinese crime and professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, said his research indicates violence, particularly homicides, has been climbing since 1980.

“The real crime problem is much higher than the recorded official crime rates, and the police are well aware of that fact,” he said.

Social scientists weigh in on what underlying causes of the violence may be:

Experts say China’s problem is not a lack of police, high-tech security equipment or surveillance cameras, which are plentiful in the big cities, but simmering and widespread frustration over the growing wealth gap, corruption and too few legal channels for people who have grievances.

“Societies are pressure cookers — and Chinese society, arguably, is particularly high-pressure and has relatively few legitimate avenues for recourse and few legitimate ways to release intense psychological pressure,” said Harold Tanner, a professor of Chinese history at the University of North Texas. “The system as a whole, even when it is working more or less as designed, does not provide people with enough legitimate avenues for pursuit of justice.”

Pi, the Beijing criminology professor, said he considers the school attacks and the court killing similar examples of social anger boiling over into violence.

“We can’t just say those people were angry, lost control. They won’t do it for no reason, and we have to ask, ‘Where does that anger come from?'” Pi said. “The benefits of economic reform have been exhausted and now it’s a turning point. The wealth gap is widening, the unemployment problem and corruption are becoming more severe.”

Pi said the government needs to tackle all these issues but “most importantly, they must provide a proper channel for appeal.”

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