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Reality Check: How safe is it to live in China?

China‘s Director of Public Order, Li Jingsheng, has claimed it is “one of the safest countries in the world.”

He says that gun crime fell by 27.6% in 2018.

The official China News Service shared a video of Mr Li announcing the decline, which has been viewed more than one million times.

So how does China compare with other countries, and can we trust its statistics?

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Cities in China are generally considered safe, but citizens are closely watched by the authorities

Gun crime in China

The Chinese government says that from 2012 to 2017, the government reported an 81.3% drop in gun crimes from 311 to 58.

These figures relate to all crimes involving the holding or use of guns, says Dr Xu Jianhua, a crime expert at the University of Macau.

“In terms of gun crime, China could be one of the lowest because the government has very tight restrictions. But that doesn’t mean other crimes are low,” says Dr Xu.

Such data is treated with caution by many experts. Borge Bakken, who studies crime in China at the Australian National University, is particularly critical.

“There are lies, damned lies, and Chinese crime statistics. It is sheer propaganda and the falsification of data goes from each police station to the top level,” he says.

There are reasons why the rate of gun crime may be low in China, even if the data itself is unreliable.

It is illegal for a private citizen to own a gun and the government has run an aggressive campaign to seize weapons.

According to government statistics, police confiscated 146,000 guns in 2018.

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A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard on Tiananmen Square

Elsewhere in the world

Gun crime data in Europe and the United States is far more readily accessible than in China.

In the United States in 2017, there were 314,931 recorded cases of homicide, robbery and assault involving guns, according to the FBI.

In the same year, the UK and Germany, which include threats with guns, there were 6,375 and 8,935 police-recorded cases, respectively.

These figures cannot be directly compared with the Chinese numbers but it is easy to see why Chinese media find it easy to latch on to crime stories in the United States, for example, and to point to the dangers of America’s cities.

The collection and reporting of crime statistics is controversial in many countries.

Variations in data depend on public willingness to report crimes as well as changing definitions of criminal activity.

Reporting violent crime in China

Analysis by Celia Hatton, Asia-Pacific editor

Almost any day of the week, China‘s state-run tabloids feature the stabbings, shootings and sexual assaults taking place in Western countries.

The broadsheets have a particular obsession with gun crime in the United States.

The underlying message: the Western world is not safe. Last July, the Chinese Embassy in Washington warned Chinese tourists to the US to “avoid going out alone at night”.

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A copy of the Global Times, a Chinese tabloid newspaper

Beijing wants to protect its citizens, yes, but it also wants to tout the benefits of its own domestic security policies. Those policies are aimed at protecting its citizens, although they are also used to maintain Communist Party control.

The appearance of low crime rates inside China help to justify the government’s increasingly inescapable surveillance network.

In 2015, the Beijing authorities announced that every corner of the city was covered by police surveillance cameras. And by 2020, the Chinese state media says that the country will have completed its nationwide surveillance network using facial recognition technology.

China‘s state media regularly cites cases in which the so-called “Sharp Eyes” surveillance network is used to stop crimes.

Last June, it told a story of a heated dispute between two villagers over money in the tiny village of Jiantai, in south-west China‘s Sichuan Province. “Just as a young man was about to pull a knife, the police promptly arrived, stopping what could have become a bloodbath,” the article proclaimed.

No wonder some Chinese citizens are telling others on social media to take their holidays inside China, “where it’s safe”.

Political pressure

In China, analysts say that at various levels of government, officials are encouraged to alter the crime figures.

The police report crime first at a city level to a provincial one, which then gets sent to a national body.

“Crime statistics are very important for performance of local police and government – and various local governments manipulate the data,” says Dr Xu.

Strong performance in crime provides opportunities for increased salaries and promotion for government officials, he adds.

National crime statistics are aggregated from local police reports and certain crimes are only reported if they reach a level of severity.

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Guangzhou, one of China’s major cities

There is also a discrepancy between the number of calls to the emergency hotline and published crime data, according to research by Dr Xu.

“If you compare crime reported on the crime hotline you will see over 90% not reported, but not every call will necessarily be a crime,” he says.

China‘s reporting of crime data may be questionable, but there is a perception that its cities are relatively safe from violent crime.

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