The Kids Are Not Alright





A rhyme currently popular among school kids in Hunan province seems to parody the swaggering American youth ethos: "Going to school is a real drag/And it costs lots of money/Why not join a gang? Food, drink, status/And sleep each night with a honey." In the People's Republic--in Mao's home province, no less--one is hard-pressed to imagine the lines being much more than the braggadocio of a few fortunate kids with access to MTV. 

Yet these are not empty words. In April police in nearby Sichuan province busted a local gang, the New Dragon Society, that had been terrorizing local farmers and students; most of its 100 members were middle-school students between the ages of 14 and 16. Some 70 percent of youth crimes in China are thought to be gang-related. And while crime statistics are still considered a state secret in China, most available evidence shows that the number of offenses committed by juveniles has been rising dramatically. Independent researchers say that the number of crimes tripled between 1978 and 1998--and that nearly three quarters of those were committed by Chinese between 14 and 25. Experts say that perpetrators are growing younger and increasingly violent--a worrying trend in a society already pulled taut by other disgruntled groups. 

The more freewheeling elements of the Chinese media are now filled with tales of sensationalistic crimes committed by juveniles. In April, Liu Yang, an 18-year-old university student, was accused of stabbing his 17-year-old girlfriend 27 times after she allegedly attacked him with a pair of scissors. (She had a record of past violence.) Liu then allegedly burned the body in an attempt to cover up the murder. In June three semiprofessional soccer players in their early 20s were arrested in Shenyang after allegedly killing a peddler who refused them a cigarette and the loan of his motorcycle. More recently a trio of young women and a male accomplice were convicted in Beijing of robbing men who had hired the women for sex, netting more than $85,000. 

The most dangerous trend may be the rise in youth gangs, which have begun to flourish both in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai and in rural areas. According to criminologist Feng Shuliang, around 70 to 80 percent of serious crimes in eastern coastal regions have been attributed to gangs. Many of the groups start out in schools--where kids say they are often bullied and robbed by older students--as informal self-protection societies. The New Dragon Society was formed ostensibly to "advance our brothers and resist outsiders." (They claimed they wanted to use the money they stole to open up hotels and teahouses to provide jobs for their comrades.) But according to Li Meijin, a criminology professor at the People's Public Security University, some gangs turn to kidnapping classmates, rape and murder. In Beijing last week a posse of six 16- and 17-year-old girls was busted for committing a string of robberies and assaults. 

Parents lament the rebelliousness of youth in every country and every generation, of course. But criminologists cite a number of uniquely Chinese factors behind the kiddie crime wave. Most prominent is the infamous "little emperor" factor. Beijing's strict family-planning policies have produced a generation of only children who are by reputation spoiled, self-centered and greedy. "Young people are less family-oriented, less collective-oriented and more self-oriented," says Paul Friday, a professor of criminal justice at the University of North Carolina. According to him, egocentricity is a common theme in juvenile delinquency; most of the people involved in crime in Western countries have narcissistic tendencies. "As young people get more self-centered, you will get more serious crimes," he warns. 

The problem is inextricable, too, from the economic and social changes that have revolutionized China in the past two decades. Liu Jianhong, a criminologist in the sociology department at Rhode Island College, says the phenomenon is "a reaction to change and loss of hope." Throughout China a pervasive "money-first" mentality has replaced moribund communist dogma. According to Liu, crime rates were low prior to 1979 due to "institutional suppression of personal economic motivation." Now, he points out, "the transition to a new growing market economy has produced vast, unimaginable opportunities to make money, and get-rich- quick examples attract admiration and emulation." The growing desire for wealth and material goods has resulted in a sharp rise in economic crimes, which, says Liu, are expanding much faster than any other type of criminal activity in China. (According to Li Meijin, the number of robberies shot up nearly 3,000 percent during the 1990s.) Theft and robbery, not surprisingly, head the list of youth crimes. 

Chinese experts also point an accusing finger at parents and schools, who they say are failing to meet the needs of today's students. Li says the majority of troubled children come from homes that are lacking in family warmth and communication. According to a survey of 2,000 young people detained for committing crimes in one Chinese city, 24 percent came from broken families or families in which one of the parents was deceased. In another 20 percent of these cases, other family members had committed crimes. In the remainder, parental controls were said to be lacking. 

Even in healthy homes the intense pressure for kids to excel in school forces many in the opposite direction. "The demands parents make on their children are not realistic," says Meng Qingmao, a psychology professor at Beijing Normal University. "This leads to a situation where kids no longer want to go to school. They cut class but then can't go home, and so they get into trouble." Nearly six out of 10 of those surveyed had dropped out of school, and more than 90 percent of them had truancy records. 

In the cities in particular, a lack of schooling fuels much of the rise in petty crimes. The armies of migrant workers and their children-- estimated at somewhere between 80 million and 100 million people-- typically cannot afford classroom fees. Analysts estimate that between 40 and 60 percent of the crimes committed in major cities can be traced back to this group, and nearly three quarters of those are committed by young people. "Anywhere around the world it's the mobile population without cultural roots and social contacts that gets into trouble," says UNC's Friday. 

The repercussions of this spreading delinquency are beginning to worry more than criminologists. Young girls, for instance, are increasingly involved in crimes. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, just one out of 99 crimes was committed by females. The ratio in some cities is now as high as 15 out of 85, with much of this related to the sex industry. (One gang in Sichuan, the Swallows, is all female.) At the same time, drug use among Chinese youth is skyrocketing. There were 540,000 registered drug users in rehab programs by the end of 1997--not including those in private institutions--and the number now is estimated at 860,000. Some 75 percent of drug users are under the age of 25, with heroin the preferred choice for almost all of those (sidebar). 

To their credit, Chinese authorities seem to be taking a more enlightened approach to this growing problem than has been typical. Past harsh crackdowns known as Strike Hard campaigns, which are still launched against various targets today, have generally resulted only in short-term drops in youth crime. Instead the focus has turned to new prevention strategies like bang jiao, or "help and education," in which small, informal groups of parents, relatives and selected neighbors intervene with juvenile delinquents. Nearly 90 work-study schools have been set up around the country to rehabilitate youths convicted of misdemeanors instead of jailing them. "The schools provide skills, and that's the best kind of crime prevention you can have," says Friday. Perhaps the authorities, too, are beginning to see the error of their past ways.

© Paul J. Mooney 2013