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China's Penal Policy Against Violence: Resilience and Challenges

Although homicide is tragic in terms of its consequences, the causes are often mundane and inextricably linked to ordinary, pre-existing social relationships, including domestic arguments, disagreements between neighbors, disputes over land, water, contractual and lease disputes or simply frivolous grievances which perhaps inevitably arise in overcrowded communities. When homicide is embedded in slowly simmering disputes that escalate gradually and finally boil over into violence, there is undoubtedly an opportunity to detect early warning signs and intervene effectively to prevent such a tragic outcome. In this sense, notwithstanding fraught philosophical debates on the thorny topic of causation, it can be credibly argued that homicide and even murder happen because of missed opportunities for more effective early intervention.

So this seems to be the essence of the Chinese experience in mitigating violence. China's authoritarian state relies heavily on performance for its legitimacy. China's economic miracle is well-known and the high rate of economic growth in the past three decades has transformed Chinese society and provided much needed legitimization for the Chinese Communist Party which faces a democratic deficit. What is less widely publicized, however, is the social miracle, if I may use the term, in the sense that the state has thus far managed to maintain stability and social order during a period of tremendous social and economic transformation and upheaval.

In essence, the key to success from the Chinese experience of reducing violence has been three types of intervention, especially with regard to the escalation of ordinary disputes with tragic consequences. Those interventionist measures include: 1)  a proactive state  in containing social conflict and suppressing disputes; 2) strong gated communities in maintaining local order and disciplining their members; and 3) situational control of good Samaritans, vigilante citizens and responsive bystanders.

Despite the Chinese state achieving a low rate of violence in society, it is now facing tremendous challenges in maintaining this. It will be an uphill battle to further curtail the level of violence in society and reduce the level of violence by 50% within the next 30%.

My core recommendations are:

1)    While the state continues to take a firm stance in proactively intervening to reduce violence, the basis of such intervention should be adjusted to a substantially legal and moral footing as distinct from its presently overly politicized character. State intervention should be extended beyond the narrowly defined category of public order, i.e. violence with direct political repercussions, to cover all types of violence: for example, domestic violence is a significant social issue that requires urgent attention and direct action by the state.

2)    The state should institutionalize its own conflict resolution mechanism by moving beyond typically ad hoc informal and extra-legal interventions. With greater legitimacy, conflict could be effectively channeled to legal institutions for effective resolution instead of resorting to frequently violent forms of 'self-help'. Much of the communal violence over land, water resources and contractual disputes engendering violence and death could have been avoided had the legal institutions been more viable and credible.

3)    The state should nurture civil society organizations and allow them to play a more active and direct role in nurturing a sense of citizenship and bolstering trust. Social intervention is more effective in preempting violence than state institutions and efficacious social intervention is predicated upon on the accumulation of social capital, forging bonds and bridging the gap between citizens, underpinned by robust social organizations that entrench a sense of belonging.