When the Price Is Too High: Rethinking China's Deterrence Strategy for Robbery

Article excerpt

Abstract: Economic property crime in China has soared since the country enacted market reforms in the early 1980s. Robbery rates are rising faster than most economic property crimes, such as larceny and fraud, and violent crimes, such as rape, murder, and assault. China's strategy for deterrence is to raise the "price" of the crime by increasing the severity of the penalty. Since 1979, China's criminal law has permitted the use of the death penalty for robbers in nearly all cases, and courts have applied it regularly and in many different types of robbery cases. Since 1983, China has formally engaged in "strike-hard" campaigns, in which the government dedicates massive law enforcement resources to Tight a particular crime. The campaigns have targeted robbery and have resulted in mass arrests, swift trials, and severe sentences-including mass executions.

Despite these efforts, China has failed to deter individuals from committing more robberies. This Comment argues that China should reform its deterrence strategy by revising its criminal law and "strike-hard" campaigns. China should adopt new deterrence strategies that combine law with sociology, economics, and psychology. Not only will these strategies deter more robbery, they will also deter the more serious crimes often committed during robberies. The new strategies will also provide incentives for individuals to commit less violent crime.

I. INTRODUCTION

Since the early 1980s, China's strategy to deter rising crime has been to impose severe punishment, including the death penalty, on crimes that do not necessarily result in the victim's death.1 The theory, captured in the traditional Chinese saying, "kill the chicken and let the monkey watch," is that severe penalties will effectively deter individuals from committing a particular crime.2 Accordingly, nearly all forms of robbery are punishable by death under the codified criminal statutes.3

China's deterrence strategy, however, has been ineffective over the last twenty-five years. China's official statistics are often incomplete and unreliable,4 but even official statistics show that China's crime rate, including the rate of robberies, has risen dramatically since the early 1980s.5 The Ministry of Public security reports that crime nearly quadrupled in twenty years, rising from eighty crimes per 100,000 people in 1981 to approximately 360 per 100,000 people in 2001.6 Economic property crimes accounted for the greatest single increase in crime between 1981 and 1990, and continued to rise faster than most violent crimes through the 1990s.7 Robbery increased nearly sixteen times in twenty years, from 22,266 reported cases in 1981 to 352,216 in 2001, faster than theft, fraud, homicide, rape, and assault.8

Confronted with this dramatic increase in robbery, the government made concerted efforts to reduce robbery and other violent crimes.9 China's two-pronged deterrence strategy authorized the death penalty for robbery through its Criminal Law, and initiated "strike-hard" campaigns intended to deter crime through a broad show of force. China has authorized the death penalty for robbery since first codifying its Criminal Law in 1979.10 In 1983, the government enacted its first strike-hard campaign.11 The campaigns target a particular crime, such as robbery, and ramp up law enforcement and state propaganda machines to obtain mass arrests, swift trials, and mass executions.12 But over the long run, the death penalty and the strike-hard campaigns have failed to deter robbery.13

This Comment argues that China should reform its deterrence strategy by revising its Criminal Law and strike-hard campaigns to incorporate interdisciplinary deterrence strategies that combine law, economics, sociology, and psychology. The oversimplified notion that a more severe penalty will deter crime has lost traction to novel developments in deterrence theory.14 Because China's Criminal Law has developed new legal hooks on which to hang arguments for reform,15 China is in a good position to adopt several new deterrence strategies to deter robbery more effectively. …