Rural China’s Public Security Vacuum

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 17

Specialized Safety Patrol SSP in Zibo Shandong Province (Source: Chinese Internet)

The month of August began for Chinese netizens with terrible news. Two siblings, aged 15 and 12, were murdered in a gruesome double homicide (QQ News Online, August 8). The story of the children’s murder struck a chord with the Chinese public, particularly because the siblings, who lived in the rural Nayong County, Guizhou Province, were “left behind (留守),” that is, their parents had both moved to work in cities, leaving the children with relatives. The subsequent arrest of the murderer did not quell the heated debate by the online community on the causes behind similar tragedies. Such cases continue to plague rural China. While some lambasted the failures of government-run child protective agencies, others criticized the backwardness of rural culture that still tolerates rampant abuse of children. But little has been said about the state of rural policing. The police, theoretically the source of protection for the vulnerable rural populace, are often unable to offer sufficient policing. In fact, the present state of surging lawlessness in rural China may well be attributed to this existing “public security vacuum.” It is necessary to ask: why does this situation exist, despite new initiatives pushed by the state with the aim of strengthening the rural police force? Current countermeasures adopted by the state have their own merits, but the plight of security affairs in rural China will not change until sweeping alterations are made in security and economic policy.

The Vacuum

When speaking to a field researcher in 2013, a farmhand summed up the deteriorating public security condition in rural China: “If you raise pigs, you stand guard at the pigsty every night. If you farm cattle, you stand guard at the cowshed every night…But either way, do not even dare thinking about sleeping at home.” [1] The general trend of the state of public security in China’s countryside over the last decade is one where criminal activities of all kinds are surging steadily, the average age of criminal offenders is decreasing, and the effectiveness of the police force is stagnating, if not declining. More than four million criminal cases were officially registered every year from 2001 to 2013, with a few years in between rising above the five million mark. [2] Further analysis of these numbers is hampered by the fact that the Chinese Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and other agencies do not release detailed crime statistics. Academic articles, while agreeing for the most part that rural crime is on the rise, only include sporadic statistics is the focus of their study. However, judging from the available scholarly literature, it evident that crime in the countryside reflects a national trend. In Guangxi province alone, 103,761 criminal cases relating to public security were registered in 2009, 154,531 in 2010, and 181,763 in 2011. [3] This has had a direct impact on the public’s sense of security. In a survey conducted in rural parts of Hebei province, 73.6 percent of participants felt their security needs were not being fulfilled adequately. [4] In eastern Hubei, only 7 percent of survey participants felt the rural police’s work is “satisfactory.” [5] A survey conducted in rural Sichuan province showed similar results, with only 13.7 percent of participants feeling “very satisfied” toward the existing state of public security. Furthermore, more than 70 percent of female participants indicated that they rarely, if ever venture out after dark for fear of danger outside their family homes. [6]

China’s manufacturing boom, while providing rural laborers with employment opportunities, has unintended, if not entirely negative consequences on security in the countryside. Criminal syndicates, whether local or transplanted from the cities, are gaining greater presence in rural China. While some operate like bandits, moving from one village to another, burglarizing households and terrorizing the local populace, others maintain a more permanent presence. Local groups produce counterfeit goods, operate illegal gun-manufacturing workshops and produce drugs (particularly methamphetamines) as a quick means to escape poverty. [7] Urban criminal groups are choosing to relocate to the countryside after crackdowns in the cities. Rural areas, due to their vast size, make concealing illicit activities much easier. Moreover, China’s manufacturing-based, labor-intensive economic model has emptied entire villages in the interior of the country of working-age men and women, leaving the “left behind” population–mainly the young and the very old–vulnerable to these gangs. Young people–who are mostly raised by grandparents while their parents are working in the cities–are particularly vulnerable to these criminal groups. Almost half (46.7 percent) of China’s “left behind” youth have both parents working far away in coastal cities. Without adequate parental guidance and raised in a community of broken families, rural youth have shown a tendency toward delinquent behavior. The average age of rural offenders has recently dropped from 16 to 14–a disturbing trend that highlights the vulnerability of these children to criminal elements and the negative impact the absence of adults and police is having on China’s youth. [8]

Causes of the Vacuum

Crime flourishes without a police presence. In the case of China, the rural police force lacks both adequate manpower and professionalism. It is common for a single rural police officer to be responsible for several villages and thousands of people, making sufficient policing close to impossible. On average, a rural officer in Guizhou province is singlehandedly responsible for 4.2 villages or 4,000 to 6,000 people. [9] One investigation of a rural police division in Jiangsu province showed that three officers were responsible for an area of 267 square kilometers: approximately one and a half times the area of Washington, DC [10] In the metropolitan area of Zhanjiang in Guangdong province, a dispatch station staffed with eight officers must ensure the security of 8 to 16 villages. [11] This serious personnel shortage greatly reduces the state’s ability to respond to crime. Tough terrain and long distances makes policing even more difficult. Another report cited an average distance of 15 kilometers over bumpy roads from a police station to another village (People’s Daily Online, July 26, 2013). This leads to spotty coverage of many areas–giving locals a sense that law enforcement is unable to help them in emergencies.

In a survey of Sichuan villagers, 90 percent said they rarely or have never seen a police officer in their village. [12] Most villagers do not notify the police when the situation requires their presence since the response time is painstakingly slow and it would take hours before an officer could arrive on scene or, in extreme cases, an evening after. [13] This reality is at odds with China’s leaders declared commitment to fazhi (法制) or “rule by law.” The lack of an engaged police force undermines the rule of law and even goes against a basic tenet of the People’s Police Law of China, which requires the police to “keep close ties with [the masses]” (National People’s Congress Online). When a police force does not actively engage the community it is supposed to serve, and remains inactive even when the community is under threat from official malfeasance or powerful criminal gangs, the community, in return, will not trust or respect the state to enforce laws (Sina News Online, July 14, 2014). [14]

The biggest problem the police force faces is insufficient manpower. The rural police face a severe personnel shortage due to two reasons: the centralized police recruitment system and lack of funding. The Ministry of Public Security holds the authority to determine the size of the police force in each province through a top-down hierarchy. Each province is given a set number of personnel for its police force; recruiting above the quota is not permitted. Provincial governments could apply for higher recruitment ceilings, but China’s urban-centric focus for security funding means that provincial governments will likely allocate more resources to cities than the countryside. [15]

The rural police force’s lack of funding is another key issue, and has its roots in the GDP-growth-driven economic policies that have dominated the countryside. Reckless investment in industrialization projects has left county, township and village governments with enormous debt burdens. [16] These deficits directly impact public security institutions, which already struggle to recruit quality officers with lower salaries and benefits than their city counterparts. [17]

No systematic training program is in place for rural officers. In most cases, rookie officers learn the basics of policing by emulating the experience of older officers. But modern policing requires more than passed down knowledge, emphasizing technical skills and scientific knowledge. If officers do not possess basic policing skills when they enter the public security profession, then it is even harder to train them on new skills later on. An example of this skills-gap became evident during an investigation in Jianning County of Fujian province. Although the police station has state-of-the-art policing equipment installed, the staff has limited knowledge of how to operate it. [18] The lack of professional training also negatively influences basic police work, sometimes with grave consequences. A June 18 mass incident in Shuangfeng, Hunan, which resulted in violent clashes between 150 police officers and several hundred angry villagers, was triggered by crass police treatment of the family of a woman who died under suspicious circumstances (Legal Daily Online, July 7). [19]

National Initiatives and Local Innovation

To help solve the problem of understaffing in the countryside, both the central and local governments have adopted new solutions. On the national level, two main policies have so far been adopted–the “Skynet project” (天网工程) and “one policeman for each village” (一村一警)–to strengthen the rural police force’s working capacity and improve their ability to monitor villages. The “Skynet project” drastically increases the number of surveillance cameras in cities and villages. A successful example of the “Skynet project” is the city of Yulin in Guangxi province. Since 2006, the government of Yulin has invested over 600 million yuan to set up a video surveillance system consisting of 56,000 closed-circuit television cameras. This compares with the 1,100 in San Francisco, which has approximately the same population (People’s Daily Online, July 30, 2013; San Francisco Bay Guardian Online, August 21, 2013). The state media trumpets Changjing–one among 154 villages in Yulin’s metropolitan area–as a model of the “Skynet project’s” success in augmenting rural police surveillance coverage. However, the nearest dispatch station actually has only seven police officers, raising the question of how effective this monitoring system–let alone traditional police work–would be. The Skynet system has not proved popular. A staggering 93 percent of respondents (62,797) answered negatively to a 2013 online poll that asked, “Does the ‘Skynet project’ make you feel safe?” (QQ News Online, March 10, 2013). The second experimental model has also faced serious challenges.

The “one policeman for each village” policy assigns an officer to their home village or county, making the most of their familiarity with the area and people. National reporting has indicated that the “one policeman” policy has had some success (Xinhua News Online, August 3). However, the policy remains a stopgap measure since county policemen cannot be stationed in villages permanently, and assigning them to villages means that manpower is even further diluted for larger operations. A recent study further showed that officers assigned to villages returned to the county seat as quickly as possible after the conclusion of anti-crime campaigns, leaving village police stations unmanned. [20]

Rather than waiting on support from the central government, some township and village governments have assumed a leadership role in filling the public security vacuum with local innovation. The most representative of all is perhaps the “Tongyu model.” Developed in Tongyu County of western Jilin province, a remote area bordering Inner Mongolia that once suffered terribly from criminal activity. At one point, the security situation was so bad many farmers lost entire years’ worth of crops to thieves. Deep in debt, the village governments of Tongyu County could not finance the expansion of the police force independently. Instead, they created a new community organization to shoulder the burden of policing. Unlike older mass security organizations that survived purely on community voluntarism, the new organization, called Specialized Safety Patrol (专职治安巡逻队 or SSP), makes sure its members are paid with joint funding by the county, towns, townships and villages under the authority of the local public security bureau. Compared to a conventional police force, the SSP costs much less to maintain and its members have a stronger sense of duty stemming from guarding their native villages. As of 2013, the SSP has fifteen teams and a total of 90 patrolmen, with an additional 6,226 volunteer reservists. To better monitor activity along the county’s perimeter, the SSP set up a total of 52 checkpoints throughout Tongyu. With the additional help of a new infrared security system, the SSP lowered the crime rate by 26.4 percent and the number of safety-related incidents by 31 percent. [21] Although the “Tongyu model” has been a success, there is no evidence this model has been replicated on a nationwide level, likely because of resistance by the central government to granting local governments too much autonomy in running their own security affairs.


The foremost duty of a government is to facilitate an environment secure enough so society can flourish without the fear of social disorder. But in the case of China, the public security vacuum is still far from being filled. Already left behind by rapid economic growth along the coastal regions, the continual existence of the rural public security vacuum in hinterland villages does nothing but perpetrate injustice and resentment. It seems clear that rural public security in China would benefit from loosening the centralized police recruitment policies in the short-term and changing the rural economic priorities in the long term to let rural governments have less debt and more decision-making power in tailoring plans to fulfill endemic security needs. Such a step could more effectively help shape a secure environment in which the people of the countryside are able to live in tranquility, and tragedies like the one in Nayong are no longer a familiar recurrence.

Zi Yang is a graduate student at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He currently serves as a research assistant at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.


  1. Zhang Xun 张训, 圩的变迁及农村犯罪样态更迭–基于皖北一个自然村落的考察 [Changes in Village Earthworks and Rural Crime–a Study based on a Natural Village in Northern Anhui], Journal of Jiangxi Police Institute 2 (March 2013): 64.
  2. Zhang Xuechao 张学超, 我国新农村建设中的犯罪特点态势分析 [An Analysis on Characteristics and Tendency of Crime in the Process of Construction of New Countryside in China], Journal of Shandong Police College 1 (Jan. 2015): 121.
  3. Zhou Jun周俊,新时期广西农村治安问题及成因分析 [Analysis on the Causes of Guangxi’s Rural Safety Issues in the New Era], Economic and Social Development 6 (Dec. 2013): 109. Data based on study of twelve Guangxi prefecture-level cities’ rural periphery.
  4. Gao Yingxia 高迎霞 and Zhang Suluo张素罗, 农村治安公共服务需求分析–基于河北省622农户的调查 [Study on the Demand of Rural Public Security Service–Base on an Investigation of 622 Peasant Households in Hebei province], Journal of Yunnan Police Officer Academy 2 (March 2011): 73.
  5. Wang Yi王益; Zhou Bing周炳; Zhang Caihong 张彩红and Sun Ying孙莹,鄂东乡村治安状况调查 [Investigation on the Condition of Public Safety in Rural Eastern Hubei], Journal of Hubei University of Police 4 (April 2013): 16.
  6. Cheng Yong程勇, 四川农村当前社会治安存在的问题、原因及对策 [On Existing Problems, Causes and Countermeasures of Social Security in Rural Areas of Sichuan Province], Journal of Sichuan Police College 2 (April 2013): 60.
  7. “Counterfeit goods”: Food items tend to be most popular for counterfeiters; recent sting operations in Guangzhou’s rural districts uncovered spurious products ranging from bacon to baijiu. See also: Feng Qingmin 冯倩敏 “Guangzhou banshu weihai shipin fanzui she roulei chanpin” 广州半数危害食品犯罪涉肉类产品 [Manufacturing Harmful Meat Products Constitute Half of Guangzhou’s Food-related Crimes], Xinhua Guangdong Online, July 7, 2015, “illegal guns”: Civilian gun ownership is strictly forbidden in China and there are serious repercussions for anyone who violates ban. Despite these laws, the underground gun business is alive and thriving. China’s top three manufacturing hubs of black market guns–Hualong Hui Autonomous County of Qinghai Province, Songtao Miao Autonomous County of Guizhou Province and Hepu County of Guangxi Province–produce tens of thousands of firearms and ammunition annually from their discreet workshops in countryside. See also: 揭秘中国三大黑枪制造地: 化隆造成黑枪代名词 [Unveiling China’s Top Three Black Market Gun Manufacturing Hubs: ‘Hualong Made’ is now Synonymous with Black Market Firearms], Sina News Online, June 30, 2015. “Drug rings”: The narcotics trade has penetrated deep into the interior of China. Anhui Province’s remote Linquan County is one of many emporiums along China’s drug trafficking pipelines. According to recent reporting by Xinhua, there are new discoveries of local cadres’ participation in the narcotics business every year. See for example: Li Zhiqiang 李志强,一个涉毒大县的 “刮骨疗毒” [A Drug-infested County’s “Bone Scraping Therapy”], Xinhua Online, July 10, 2015.
  8. Zhang Xuechao, 123.
  9. Liu Jintao 刘锦涛, 农村警务战略运行成效探析–以贵州为个案研究 [On the Operational Effectiveness of Rural Policing Strategy–A Case Study of Guizhou Province], Journal of Henan Police College 6 (Dec. 2014): 96.
  10. Hu Jiangang 胡建刚, 对中国农村警务工作的若干思考 [Thoughts on Rural Police Work in China], Economic Research Guide 10 (April 2012): 60.
  11. Han Jing 韩静; Li Xiaoqing 李晓青; Ma Xuequan 马学全; Zhang Guogui张国贵 ; Xie Wenzhi谢文志 and Liang Huquan 梁虎泉, 湛江市农村地区社会稳定和治安问题研究 [A Study on the Issues of Social Stability and Public Security in the Rural Areas of Zhanjiang City], Journal of Political Science and Law 6 (Dec. 2013): 48.
  12. Cheng Yong, p. 60.
  13. Gao Fuqiang 高富强, 从农村警力不足说起 [Let’s Start by Talking About the Rural Police’s Lack of Manpower], Rural Women 1 (Jan. 2010): 58-59.
  14. Following the Communist tradition of mass-line politics or qunzhong luxian (群众路线), village governments do maintain their own voluntary security organizations. But most of these have atrophied in terms of effectiveness either because of lack of funds or the shortage of young men willing to participate in unpaid yet high-risk work.
  15. Xie Yuanyuan 解源源 and Shi Quanzeng 史全增, 基层公安机关警力不足的类型化分析及改革路径 [Analysis of Rural Police’s Inadequate Manpower and Suggestions for Reform], Journal of People’s Public Security University of China (Social Sciences Edition) 4 (Aug. 2014): 38-40.
  16. Ong, Lynette H., Prosper or Perish: Credit and Fiscal Systems in Rural China, (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2012), 159.
  17. Wang Chao 王超, 基层警力不足的经济学分析 [An Economic Analysis on Rural Police’s Lack of Manpower], Journal of Liaoning Police Academy 1 (Jan. 2012): 59-61.
  18. Huang Zhimin 黄志敏 and Fu Mingxiang 傅明祥, 综合警务改革形势下拓展基层民警职业发展空间的思考–以福建省建宁县为例 [Thoughts on Expanding Career Opportunities for Rural Police under the Current Comprehensive Police Reform], Public Security Science Journal (Journal of Zhejiang Police College) 2 (April 2013): 40.
  19. The scale of the Shuangfeng clash differs drastically between official and unofficial accounts. According to unofficial sources on Weibo, the confrontation escalated to between 500 police officers and more than 10,000 villagers after police injured a few protesters, then shot and killed a youngster during the initial standoff over the police’s unjust treatment of the dead woman’s family. See also: Zhong Xingmei 钟杏梅, and Song Yuanyuan 宋媛媛, 湖南双峰派出所遭打砸 舆论呼吁公布更多细节 [Dispatch Station Attacked in Hunan’s Shuangfeng, Public Opinion Demands More Details on the Incident], Legal Daily Online, July 6, 2015.
  20. Liu Jintao 刘锦涛, 试论农村警务运行中存在的问题–以贵州为个案研究 [A Tentative Study on the Operation of Rural Policing–A Case Study of Guizhou Province], Journal of Guizhou Police Officer Vocational College 1 (Jan. 2014): 96.
  21. Zhang Liang 张亮, “村警”上岗为村民看家护院-通榆县破解农村治安防范难题 [“Rural Officers” Guard Villagers’ Home–Tongyu County’s Answer to the Village Public Safety Conundrum], Jilin People’s Congress 5 (May 2013): 24-25.