by Lena Y. Zhong. Devon, UK: Willan Publishing, 2008. 256pp. Hardback. £45.00/$79.95. ISBN: 9781843924050.

Reviewed by Xiangfeng Yang, Politics and International Relations, University of Southern California and Ying Li, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong. Email: xiangfey [at]


Lena Zhong’s COMMUNITIES, CRIME AND SOCIAL CAPITAL IN CONTEMPORARY CHINA is no common work of criminology. This book boldly explores the origins and effects of social control and crime prevention measures in China by utilizing social capital as a possible framework, thus providing a new perspective to observe the phenomenon. While she uses comparative empirical case studies to test and challenge the applicability of Western criminal theories in the Chinese context, her focus is not limited to the effectiveness of community crime prevention itself. In fact, she vividly captures and presents the changing social capital patterns underlying a broader picture of political and economic transitions in the post-Mao China. Based on a large volume of rich secondary data, Zhong probes the effects of the “Building Little Safe Civilized Communities” (hereinafter, “BLSCC”) program that the government claims to be positive. The surveys and interviews conducted on-location in these communities, however, reveal a different story: effectiveness varies community by community. Linking the nexus with social capital, Zhong argues that the effective enforcement of BLSCC (or, broadly speaking, public social control) lies in both the vertical and horizontal aspects of social capital that have been undergoing profound changes as a result of the broad socioeconomic and political developments in China since the early1980s.

The book is composed of three parts. Part 1 includes Chapters 1 and 2, which outline the issue and provide an overview of the city of Shenzhen where empirical evidence is collected. Part 2 encapsulates Chapters 3, 4 and 5, which include the author’s understanding of Western theories that interpret crime as social phenomena, as well as a review of the customs and disposition of social infrastructure in China. The contrast between Western and Chinese society indicates that the emergence of community crime prevention derived from a complex setting of relational networks and the resources engaged therein, thus exposing the role of social capital. Chapters 6 through 9 constitute Part 3. Social control policies – especially the BLSCC program and Zhong’s field work – are elaborated here to examine how social capital influences the effects of social control or crime prevention mechanisms from a micro perspective. Zhong concludes that social capital matters greatly in facilitating effective community crime prevention mechanisms, as seen especially from the significant impact of the vertical linkages on institution building. Finally, Chapter 9 summarizes the entire [*60] research journey and conclusion, and suggests new directions of future study.

Recent theories in the West on crimes have shifted their research scope from individuals to the community level, and from punitive to preventive measures, although in reality the society and the government pay attention to both aspects. In China, the field is straitjacketed by various political constraints and difficulties in obtaining objective, first-hand data. Zhong endeavors to make up for this deficiency by inserting the conditions of social capital and choosing Shenzhen for her empirical study. Being one of the first experimental reform zones, Shenzhen has seen waves of migrants pouring into the city looking for opportunities. Despite the dramatic change in demographic structure, old segregation policies like household registration (hukou) remain. Indigenous residents, too, may have changed their behavioral patterns and ideological inclinations via their intense interaction with the rest of the region. Hence, tension between the past and present generates dilemmas and contradictions, while traditional ties within and among different actors are mixed with new features. All in all, Shenzhen displays a condensed picture of the problems and trials that have exploded across China, proving the venue is a suitable and smart choice.

There are three identified variables in the surveys and interviews Zhong conducted. The first regards how to positively test the mutual interaction within the community and in what patterns the connections are manifested. The second variable looks at how residents perceive the public security situation. This can be an indicator to measure the relationship between actors of different communities. The third variable invites interviewees to appraise the effectiveness of BLSCC, thereby reflecting the different outcomes owing to the aforementioned disparities.

The main idea and analytical framework are elaborated in Part 2. Modernization has brought about globalization, which, paradoxically and simultaneously, reinforced localism. As the formal social control institutions were exposed as incapable of coping with the deteriorating situation, an appeal of returning to the local community attracted much attention. On the theoretical level, scholars now regard the rising crime rate as a concomitant symptom of modernization rather than an aberration, and a public issue instead of a private affair. Research trajectories have been transferred from an individual to a more community-based or societal level. Under this rubric, many crime prevention models that emphasize strategic partnerships and informal social sanctions as alternatives to punitive measures have emerged. The links between crime prevention and social capital are therefore established. Zhong’s concept of social capital stresses both the networks and a desire to invest in cultivating those networks. Both longitudinal and latitudinal dimensions of social capital are important in augmenting the ultimate sum. The author claims that various crime prevention theories (social disorganization theory, opportunity reduction theory, and broken window theory) prove the strength of social capital in explaining the crime prevention paradigms. Notwithstanding, refocusing on the community does not mean that the role of the state can or [*61] should be excluded. As a matter of fact, the bonding and bridging patterns of social capital already imply an intersection between the society and the state.

After reviewing the Western theories, the final part of the book is dedicated to the Chinese scenario. One of the profound historical impacts of Confucianism is that the Chinese people tend to conceptualize the law as a tool instead of as an institution. Breaches of law can be forgiven in light of “moral merit,” whereas familial relations (or guanxi) are above the law. In terms of the organization of the modern social fabric, Chinese society is an intrinsically and intimately woven collective but isolated from the outside. Zhong agrees with the “ripple” model articulated by Fei (pp.80-82, 84) and the “honeycomb” model elucidated by Shue (pp.82-85). In such a low-mobility environment, interpersonal ties demonstrate strong power. The book parallels the discourse of guanxi in Chinese society to the conception of social capital in the West, and encourages the reader to consider the positive meaning of the word. Guanxi is a tie that extends beyond family or kinship to help maintain the smooth operation of social relations and facilitate reciprocal favors. Individuals and entities believe that guanxi enables them to increase familiarity with and express trust with others, reduce transaction costs and increase the desire to exchange favors. Though the traditional setup of society has disintegrated, the belief in guanxi has never faded.

Given the conventional understanding of interpersonal relations and social values in China, the discourse on crime and social control paradigms echo the ideology underneath. On the one hand, crimes and criminals are often morally judged. On the other hand, the traits of a communist state determine the government’s high sensitivity to crimes that threaten social stability. As such, crackdowns on crime have been put at the top of political agendas. Therefore, household registrations, neighborhood committees, work units and public security organs have been constructed not only to prevent crime but also to accommodate the state’s needs for governance. Household registration drew a sharp line between the urban and rural populations, and helped restrict population flows from the countryside to the cities. For urban residents, as their life was largely regulated by their work units and neighborhood committees, people formed a society of acquaintances with boundaries. This was particularly true before the mid-1990s, when state-owned enterprises constituted the majority share of the national economy. Above the basic infrastructure of social control institutions stand the public security organs, which not only fought real crimes but also functioned to guarantee the corporate security management with grassroots communities. The web was knit tightly, insomuch that the social order was sustained and the segregation among different communities preserved. Interestingly, unlike in the West, although driven by state power, Chinese crime prevention has been community-based.

Yet over the past decades crime rates increased dramatically while patterns of crimes also multiplied. The old mechanisms lost their appeal, and new ways of social control are needed. In [*62] Shenzhen, stern measures were employed to guard public order, while innovation of community crime prevention also emerged. The “Comprehensive Management of Social Order” (hereinafter, “CMSO”) policy set the tone on an all-out scale campaign which mobilized both formal and informal institutions. The BLSCC program took shape as the embodiment of the CMSO campaign in Shenzhen. In addition to emphasis on ideological and legal education, the highlights include mass prevention and management tactics. Situational measures and moral education are imposed upon individual dwellers. Grassroots organs are encouraged or required to cooperate with public police. The migrant population is set as the main target of scrutiny. The state once again plays a crucial role in organizing various societal textures and resources. Zhong hereby convincingly argues that the Chinese crime prevention paradigm cannot be simply explained in the same state-society dichotomy that serves the West.

The variance in the assessments of the BLSCC program also supports one of Zhong’s major hypotheses: all things being equal or similar, a web with good links to connect to other chains is able to function better. In other words, the relations with actors outside the immediate community will increase the “bridging” social capital, hence helping to build a more secure and safer environment. In the end, the author seems to imply that a sound relationship with government significantly affects the final program.

COMMUNITIES, CRIME AND SOCIAL CAPITAL IN CONTEMPORARY CHINA is an insightful and creative study of crime prevention. Both the theoretical implications and empirical discoveries shed new light for future research. Although evidence might be constrained by artificial barriers, the final conclusion deduced from the available data appears convincing. While parts of the book are oddly organized, the overall work is coherent. For further improvement, the book would have been even better if the relations between bonding and bridging social capital could be illustrated more for the sake of the conclusion.

© Copyright 2010 by the authors, Ying Li and Xiangfeng Yang.