One of my hobbies is researching gangs, usually prison and street gangs. I don't know, maybe it's because of our mutual love of tattoos :-P. But gangs really are a fascinating and horrifying subject, one that is increasing in visibility and veracity every day. Numerous Western documentaries illuminate the international gang culture (Ross Kemp on Gangs, History Channel's Gangland, etc.) but I am always struck by the conspicuous absence of Chinese criminal gangs. And the reason is that China's mainland has a relatively low gang problem and what gangs that do exist hardly make for riveting television.
In theory, China should be swarming with organized and unorganized crime. There is a massive population of young and middle-aged men with little or no education and skills with little prospects for marriage and a prosperous future. Every Western country with similar social demographics has a huge gang problem, and modernized countries like Japan and regions such as Hong Kong have a long embedded history of gang traditions.
But mainland China does not. Of course, there are hordes of surly-faced youth prowling the streets looking for trouble, but this hardly qualifies as a "gang" threat and is usually just a collection of rebellious punks with nothing to do. You don't have cliques lethally guarding their territory, tagging empty walls with gang signs, tattooing themselves with their local area codes, and slinging rock on the street corners. In China, most gangs are underground and rarely visible, and are usually involved such un-glamorous black market affairs such as smuggling, kidnapping, and extortion. No drive-bys, no shootouts with the cops, no prison feuds and other such activities usually associated with gang life.
Of course, most people's perceptions of gang culture have been magnified and glorified by music and the media. Although I spent my childhood in inner city New York, it was a far cry from Compton or El Salvador. And that's not to say that there aren't Chinese gangs outside of China. Every major American city has well-established and vicious Chinese street gangs. They simply lack a significant counterpart in their home country.
Why? There are numerous reasons, and I can only speculate, but I believe there are two substantial factors keeping gang culture from thriving in China. The first is a hesitancy to embrace the life of an outcast, which is what being a gangster means. You're accepted into the brotherhood of your gang but you are scorned by the rest of society, and for a Chinese person, this is a paralyzing thought, even when promised safety and security by a gang. The second factor is the lack of disenfranchised men in urban areas. Sure, there are millions of migrant workers, but they don't stay in the city and roam the streets at night. They do the work, then they go back to their homes in the countryside. It is usually the girls who permanently leave the countryside and relocate to the cities but for the men, it's much harder to survive in the city without an education or specialized skills. And because China is such a large country with massive rural areas, it is hard to centralize enough of such men to create the friction and frustration that spawns gang cultures. And then there's the Chinese mindset of communal property. In the West, we are very keen on personal ownership of territory, even if its just our block. But in China, people don't have this same sense of ownership of a place where they have invested their lives. They have their homes, but it's not their "territory." Most Chinese just want to live in peace, and they do. The territorial Western mentality is just fuel for the gang fire waiting to ignite.
So that's my analysis. I could be totally wrong but I think that China won't have a serious gang problem for a long time, if ever. And this is one reason why I say that China is one of the safest countries on earth.