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Crime and penitentiary system in China - statistics & facts

As of June 2020, some 1.71 million people had been incarcerated in China. In terms of the number of prisoners, China ranked second only to the United States. Among the other Asian countries, China exhibited the largest prison population, nearly four times as large as the runner-up, India. However, high absolute prisoner numbers may correlate with China’s enormous population base. With a population of about 1.4 billion, the country was the world’s most populous country in 2019. Surprisingly, the relative prison population in China ranged lower than that of Taiwan or Singapore.

The number of crimes committed in China increased slowly until 2015 and dropped again in recent years. Most crimes were related to theft and fraud, which may be seen as the outcome of growing social inequality, a side effect of ongoing economic development. Nevertheless, apart from economic crimes, China seems to be a comparably safe place. As of 2018, none of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, a ranking based on a city’s murder rate, were located in China.

A unique feature of the Chinese penitentiary system was the re-education through labor, a system of special administrative detentions. Sentences under re-education through labor were issued as a form of administrative punishment rather than according to criminal law. It has been much criticized for the physical abuse practiced in its facilities. Also, critics claim that many detainees are held for political or religious reasons. The practice was officially abolished by the end of 2013, though it is claimed by human rights groups that other forms of extrajudicial detention still exist in China. The number of detainees held in re-education-through-labor camps reached a peak in 1960. As of 2010, around 310,000 people were still incarcerated in labor camps throughout China.

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Crime and penitentiary system in China

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Law enforcement

Prison situation in China


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