China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

China’s Prison Population

It is well known that the US leads the world in incarceration rates with 751 per 100,000 people in prison; but it is less well known how China’s incarceration rates compare. Interestingly, China, which is often portrayed as a police state, only has 119 prisoners per 100,000 people, according to December 2007 data posted at King’s College London. China ranks 113th on the list. But what does this say about China? Is it a safer place? If so, then why is it a safer place? Are criminals not getting arrested? Or, is all the data not being reported?


The data says a lot of things- for example, it tends to punish countries that better report true rates of incarceration (by ranking them higher in the list). Countries that have higher stability and greater rule of law will also tend to have higher incarceration rates. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which lacks order and stability ranks a relatively benign 183rd place with only 57 people incarcerated per 100,000. 

But the number of prisoners in a country doesn’t tell the full story about crime, so I compared data on year 2006 incarceration rates to data on crimes per 100,000. That data is from 1994-1997, so it’s a bit out of date, but it is relatively legitimate, from the UN. 

In China, there were 131 crimes per 100,000 people in 1997. (This was probably massively underreported; but when compared to rates of incarceration- at only 119 per 1,000 people as of 2006, it seems fairly legitimate.)

For comparison with other Asian countries that have Confucian histories; Taiwan had 256 (at 31st place), and South Korea had 97 (at 133rd). And Japan had 63 per 100,000 incarcerated, putting it at 177th place. This indicates China’s 113th place is average when compared to a cultural-group incarceration rate.

Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong all suffer higher crime rates than the Chinese. In Japan there were 1,507 crimes per 100,000 people in 1997. In S. Korea, there were 3,741 crimes per 100,000 people in 1997.  In Hong Kong, there were 1,070 crimes per 100,000 people in 1997.

Comparing China to other post-Soviet countries such as Cuba, Russia, and even the Soviet Bloc countries; it also ranks quite favorably: Cuba had 531 incarcerated per 100,000 (at 5th place), and Russia had 632 (at 2nd place) [With 1,627 crimes per 100,000 in 1997. (Which I would assume is underreported)], Georgia had 428 (10th place) [With 256 crimes per 100,000 in 1997- almost, but not quite as low as China’s numbers and strikingly strange considering its high amount of people currently incarcerated), Ukraine had 325 (29th place) [With 1,162 crimes per 100,000], and Latvia had 287 (35th place) [With 1,496 crimes per 100,000].

Among other developing countries, Brazil was 54th with 270, and India was in 203rd place with 52 people behind bars per 100,000 citizens [and a 1997 reported crime rate of 179 per 100,000 people].

Interestingly, France was in 140th place with only 91 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, but France was a leading country in the survey of reported crimes committed with over 6,754 crimes per 100,000 people in 1994.

Denmark, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and Moldova (at 32,000+ crimes per 100,000 people in 1997) all suffered numbers in excess of 8,000 reported crimes committed per 100,000 people.

In the US, there were 5,375 crimes per 100,000 people in 1994.


The question then emerges, why would China have less criminals than are present in other societies? Assuming the majority of criminals are arrested, some would argue that Chinese Confucian values encourage people to respect the law.

Others would argue that close Chinese kinship ties ensure that “black sheep” are scolded by their family and kept in line. This belief would segue with social control/ social constraint criminological theory.

Also perhaps the supervision of “block captains” in charge of neighborhoods who function like a support group/neighborhood watch, resolve problems that in other societies would lead to conflict. Japan has a similar system in place, where policemen visit citizens in their district, going door to door and meeting with them several times a year.


A discussion on whether or not criminals are actually getting arrested in China would involve an in-depth report I cannot go into at this time. Anecdotally, China has a high proportion of private security guards; they can be seen everywhere. In major cities like Beijing or Shanghai, the gonganju, the police, and the chengguan can be often seen patrolling.

However, examining the data closer, “bad” data reporting on actual arrests might account for part of the relatively low alleged Chinese prison population.

A reevaluation of China’s prison population rate is necessary since “There are two types of administrative detention: according to Chinese government statistics there were more than 500,000 serving administrative detention in re-education-through-labour camps in 2005, and it is reported (U.S. State Department Human Rights Report 2005) that in 2004 there were 350,000 in a second type of administrative detention, which is for drug offenders and prostitutes. The number of pre-trial detainees is not known but has been estimated at about 100,000” (King’s College Data).

“If this is correct the total prison population in China is about 2,500,000.” As opposed to the official statistic used in evaluation, which was 1,565,771″ (King’s College Data).

“A total prison population of 2,500,000 would raise the prison population rate to 189 per 100,000 of the national population” (King’s College Data).

This would put China’s position in world incarceration rates at 65th place.

This would still imply China is a relatively safe society; having a few less offenders incarcerated than 59th place Mexico.


It would be interesting to examine a cross-section report examining how many people are in prison for political crimes, violent crimes, subversive crimes, property crimes, and other crime strata. Before a full declaration can be made on how “safe” China is in regards to other countries, much more work needs to be done.

Nevertheless, it is clear that based on the rate of criminals per 100,000 in the population and possible dubious statistics on crimes committed per 100,000; China is oddly enough one of the safest countries in the world.

For Those of You Who are Tourists for the upcoming Olympic games: The US Government has a 2008 China Crime and Safety Report. (It is not very rigorous, but at least it’s something.)

19 June, 2008 Posted by | China General | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment