Global Crime Wave?
A Syndrome of Crime, Violence, and Repression
China, of course, is no Guinea-Bissau. Millions of Chinese citizens live in relative luxury, the beneficiaries of a quarter-century of unparalleled growth; but millions more still live in extreme poverty, struggling to survive on minuscule farms in the countryside or working as migrant laborers in the cities, mostly in factories making consumer goods for the export market. So long as China's economy was booming, migrant laborers were able to find work in the coastal export factories and send a bit of money back to their families in the countryside. Now, with Chinese trade figures in a major decline and many factories cutting back or closing due to the slump in exports, at least 20 million of these workers are locked out and Chinese officials fear a spike in social unrest and crime.
That 20 million figure was provided by Chen Xiwen, a senior official who heads the Chinese Communist Party's office on rural policy. "For those migrant workers who have lost their jobs, what are they going to do for income when they return to their villages? How are they going to manage? This is a new factor affecting social stability this year," he said at a news conference in February in Beijing.
That many of the migrants will be able to find remunerative work in their own villages is inconceivable--plots of farmable land are far too tiny and, despite a Chinese governmental stimulus package, there are as yet few other sources of income. As a result, most of these unemployed former peasants will head back to the cities in search of any sort of work. The danger is that many will be cheated out of their pay by unscrupulous factory owners taking advantage of their desperation or will simply find no work at all, leading to angry protests (known as "mass incidents" in China). Count on one thing: as in Mexico and elsewhere, some of them will be drawn into organized crime activities or other illicit pursuits.
Acknowledging these risks, Chen Xiwen spoke ominously of the need for greater government preparedness to contain mass incidents and other forms of social disorder. "If a mass incident occurs, leading cadres must all go to the front line, and talk to the people directly, face-to-face, to explain things," he urged, rather than simply rely on police coercion and thereby provoke greater public anger.
This syndrome--declining employment in the core economy, growing reliance on jobs in marginal enterprises or in an unofficial black-market economy, and rising rates of violent crime leading to increased state repression--is likely to be repeated in a range of other countries suffering from the global economic crisis.
Russia is at particular risk from this syndrome. According to a World Bank report released in March, its economy is expected to contract by a staggering 4.5 percent in 2009 and unemployment is expected to reach 12 percent, doubling the 2008 figure. The consequences are sure to be severe: "[T]he number of poor people in Russia will likely increase by 2.75 million, wiping out part of the gains in reducing poverty in recent years." This, in turn, will force more people to make ends meet by any means necessary, including participation in the informal economy, petty thievery, and organized crime--thereby inviting increased repression by state authorities.
Russia has, of course, long been plagued by high levels of individual and organized crime. "The US Embassy receives numerous criminal incident reports from private and official Americans on a routine basis. These incidents include, but are not limited to, racial violence, theft, vandalism, robbery, physical assaults and murder," the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), a State Department agency, reported in February. The current economic crisis has, by all accounts, sharply increased the level of such lawlessness. Russian newspapers have reported increases in everything from shoplifting and aggravated assault to murder. "One of the most significant negative consequences of the crisis could be a change in crime trends," the chief prosecutor of Moscow, Yuri Syomin, observed in February. "If life becomes worse, then crime will rise."
One aspect of the growing violence in Russia likely to be replicated elsewhere is attacks on immigrants, who are often portrayed by racist and ultra-nationalist groups as taking jobs from native people at a time of employment scarcity. "There has been a steady increase in racially-motivated incidents and ethnically-motivated violence throughout Russia," the February OSAC report noted. "Attacks on ethnic minorities by young Russian ultra-nationalists who profess a sentiment of 'Russia is for Russians' have risen for the third straight year." These concerns were heightened last December when photos of the decapitated body of a Central Asian male, presumably an immigrant from one of the former Soviet republics, were sent to human rights organizations in the country by an ultra-nationalist group that claimed responsibility for his murder and mutilation.
Wherever one looks, then, the global economic crisis is destined to be accompanied by rising levels of crime, violence and--increasingly--state repression. Worried governments may attempt to forestall the risk of criminal disorder by spending more on law enforcement or, as in the case of China, stepping up the rate of executions. In a world on the brink, this is unlikely to deter those like the Somali pirates who "only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger."
Without a global stimulus effort aimed at those at greatest risk of destitution, hunger and homelessness, expect an epidemic of global crime and boom times for criminal syndicates and cartels everywhere.