Posted: October 27th, 2022
After reading the article entitled “Internet Development, Censorship, and Cyber Crimes in China” by Liang and Lu, and the article entitled “‘Snitches End Up in Ditches’ and Other Cautionary Tales” by Morris, discuss the following prompts:
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
26(1) 103 –120
© 2010 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
Censorship, and Cyber
Crimes in China
Bin Liang1 and Hong Lu2
Since its first Internet connection with the global computer network in 1994, China
has witnessed explosive Internet development. By the end of 2008, China replaced
the United States as the largest Internet user of the world. Although China enjoyed
tremendous economic benefits from Internet development, the Chinese government
has tried to maintain tight control over the telecommunications industry and the
public Internet use, and fight increasing cyber crimes. In this article, we first review
historical development of Internet use in China and then focus on China’s Internet
censorship and its regulatory control. Next, we explore how the Internet is actively
utilized by both the government and the public to serve political and civic functions.
Finally, we discuss cyber crimes as an emergent form of crime in China and examine
how the Chinese government reacts to these offenses. Lessons from Internet use
and regulation in China are also discussed within the context of China’s economic,
political, and legal conditions.
Internet, Internet censorship, Internet regulation, cyber crime, China
Internet use and development is one of the most important inventions in the second
half of the 20th century. It has transformed people’s lives and its impact is beyond
one’s imagination and is still to come in many aspects.
1Oklahoma State University-Tulsa
2University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Bin Liang, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Oklahoma State University–Tulsa, 700 North
Greenwood Avenue, Main Hall, 2223, Tulsa, OK 74106
104 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(1)
China’s Internet use and development did not begin until a decade later after its
economic reforms. Its growth has outpaced other countries, and China by 2008 has the
largest number of Internet users in the world. What accompanied China’s Internet
development is the government’s tight control and regulation over Internet infrastruc-
ture, its commercial and social use, and its potential political ramifications. Despite
being criticized by human rights groups and activists, China’s Internet censorship
system seemingly functions well as the “Great Firewall of China.”
On the other hand, there is high hope that Internet use and development in China
will eventually lead to democracy in the largest country, testing the hypothesized rela-
tionship between Internet use, free flow of information, and democracy. Indeed, the
Internet has profoundly transformed the Chinese society in the last decade, even in
China’s political-legal reforms. However, democracy is still as far-reaching as it once
was and the role of the Internet in this reform has been constrained by the wider socio-
political and economic context of China.
Like many other nations, China’s Internet use and development also witnessed
surging cyber crimes, many in traditional forms but others as new phenomena. Unfor-
tunately, this appears to be the least studied subject. Key questions such as the status
of cyber crimes in China, the features of such crimes, and the government’s response
to these crimes are rarely answered.
In this article, we briefly review the historical development of Internet use in China
and its regulation. We also explore the issues of China’s democracy on Internet use,
the political and civic functions of the Internet, and emergent forms of cyber crimes
and the Chinese government’s response to them. These issues are all discussed within
China’s wider social, economic, political, and legal conditions.
Internet Development: Beyond
the Great Wall, Joining the World
China’s Internet development has come a long way in a very short time (Wu, 1996).
Though China initiated the economic reform and “open-door” policy in the late 1970s
and early 1980s, the use and development of Internet did not appear until almost a
decade later. In the late 1980s, China’s academia, with the support of foreign partners,
began to explore Internet use. In September 1987, a symbolic message “Beyond the
Great Wall, Joining the World (yueguo changcheng, zouxiang shijie)” was sent from
China via email (Qiu, 2003). In 1994, China connected its first international dedicated
line to the Internet and became the 71st country to register onto the global computer
network and received CN as the highest level domain name (Lu et al., 2002; Taubman,
Similar to other countries, China’s early efforts at creating Internet networks were
focused on the scholarly exchange of information. Its first networks reflected these
interests, including the China Academic Network (CANET), China Research Network
(CRNET), and the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) Network (Harwit & Clark,
2001). Soon after, China began to realize the significance of computer information
Liang and Lu 105
technology in its economic development and encouraged fast development of Internet
in commercial use to embrace the new information era. As a result, China witnessed
tremendous expansion of Internet use.
China’s total estimate of Internet users was only a few thousands by the mid-1990s
but grew exponentially afterwards. Based on annual survey data by the Chinese Inter-
net Network Information Center (CNNIC), Internet uses in China reached 2 million in
1998, surpassed 100 million in 2005, and rose to 298 million by the end of 2008.
China also replaced the United States as the largest Internet user of the world. Despite
its uneven distribution across geographical regions (e.g., rural areas carry fewer users
than urban areas), China’s Internet coverage of its total population (23% by 2008)
already passed the world average coverage (22%) (CNNIC survey reports at http://
www.cnnic.cn/en/index/0O/02/index.htm; Dowell, 2006; Srikantaiah & Dong, 1998;
Tan, 1999; Tai, 2006; Wang, 2002).
Along with the growth of Internet users, other indexes of Internet development are
impressive as well. Since the official establishment of the CNNIC in 1997, the number
of registered domain names increased from a little more than 4,000 in 1997 to 1.8 mil-
lion in 2004 and reached nearly 17 million by 2008; the number of registered Web
sites increased from less than 4,000 in 1997 to almost 3 million by 2008.
China’s Internet development has been bound to its overall economic development
in general and the growth of its telecommunication industry in particular over the
years. For example, in 1997, the numbers of fixed-line telephones and mobile phones
were about 70 million and 13 million, respectively (annual data reported by the
National Bureau of Statistics of China). By 2001, China surpassed the United States to
become the world’s largest mobile telecom market and its total number of mobile
phone users reached nearly 373 million by 2005 while the number of fixed-line tele-
phone reached 342 million (Tai, 2006, p. 119). CNNIC (2008) estimated that more
than 117 million Internet users accessed Internet via their mobile phones by 2008 and
more than 90% of Internet users (270 million) had broadband Internet access.
In comparison to other nations (e.g., Abbott, 2001; Fan, 2005; Srikantaiah & Dong,
1998; Xue, 2005), the intervention and domination by the Chinese government has
been the major distinctive feature of China’s Internet development. The Internet boom
was made possible largely because of a “state-centric strategy for comprehensive
informationization” (Hartford, 2000). This state-precipitated development of the
Internet also ensured the state ownership and control of main Internet infrastructure
and the use of Internet.
Internet Censorship and Regulation: The Great Firewall,
Self-Censorship, and Multidimensional Regulations
Given China’s single-party political system and its heavy intervention in Internet
development, its Internet censorship and regulation has evolved into a comprehensive,
multidimensional system that governs Internet infrastructure, commercial and social
use as well as legal domains.
106 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(1)
The great firewall. The predominant method of control at the infrastructure level is
restriction of access to Internet information (e.g., regulating access and content, moni-
toring Internet use). At the national level, only government-approved agencies and
businesses are permitted to establish an Internet Interconnecting Network (also called
“backbone network” or gugan wangluo in Chinese) and to license the operation of
Internet service providers at the next tier. These networks are required to go through
international gateways located in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou and are subject
to governmental control and regulation (see, for example, Cheung, 2006; Fan, 2005;
Perritt & Clarke, 1998; Tan, 1999). At the next tier, all private Internet service provid-
ers are licensed through one of these Internet Interconnecting Networks and are
required to install filters to block away undesirable content. The bottom tier involves
Internet users who are required to register with Internet service providers to gain Inter-
The Chinese government has also been constantly updating its surveillance and
control system. Take the “Golden Shield” project for example. As one of the “Three
Golden Projects,” it was first proposed in 1993 and approved in 1998. This project,
still going on, is part of the Great Firewall of China. Its main function is to censor and
control Internet information both domestically and globally (Dowell, 2006). In addi-
tion, China has established a special Internet police force to assist its Internet
surveillance. In August 2000, Anhui became the first province to set up Internet police
force and 20 others followed suit later; more than 300,000 personnel were reportedly
hired nationwide by the end of 2000 (Endeshaw, 2004; Harwit & Clark, 2001; Keith
& Lin, 2006; Tai, 2006).
Prohibited activities/materials/information related with the Internet are placed in
nine broad categories by the Chinese government. These include information that
(a) is contrary to the basic principles that are laid down in the Constitution, laws, or
administration regulations; (b) is seditious to the ruling regime of the state or the
system of socialism; (c) subverts state power or sabotages the unity of the state;
(d) incites ethnic hostility or racial discrimination, or disrupts racial unity; (e) spreads
rumors or disrupts social order; (f) propagates feudal superstitions; disseminates
obscenity, pornography, or gambling; incites violence, murder, or terror; instigates
others to commit offences; (g) publicly insults or defames others; (h) harms the
reputation or interests of the state; or (i) has content prohibited by laws or administra-
tive regulations (pp. 13-14; Cheung, 2006; Dai, 2000; Human Rights Watch, 2006,
Despite its great effort, the effectiveness of China’s Internet censorship is unclear.
Although some argued that it is very questionable (e.g., Deibert, 2002; Lacharite,
2002), others viewed it as effective (e.g., Kalathil & Boas, 2001) and even as “the
most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world” (Open Net Initiative, 2005).
Though there are many ways to circumvent the government’s Internet filtering,
such as use of proxy servers, private emails, and manipulating one’s search (Abbott,
2001; Dai, 2000; Deibert, 2002; Lacharite, 2002; Zittrain, 2004), there still lacks
knowledge of how many Chinese Web surfers adopt such approaches (Human Rights
Liang and Lu 107
Watch, 2006). One common finding is the inconsistent enforcement of China’s Inter-
net filtering. Studies show that Internet blocks have come and gone, and the content of
blocks also varies from time to time, most likely because of the fact that there is no
coherent and consistent decision-making process (Hartford, 2000; Sohmen, 2001).
Another finding is the extensive scope of China’s censoring, covering not only politi-
cal issues but also issues such as crimes and economics (Hartford, 2000; Open Net
Initiative, 2005). Empirical testing of the Chinese filtering system also found that the
filtering system is rather dynamic and has been self-changing and refining over time
(Open Net Initiative, 2005). In sum, China’s Internet control represents an “imperfect
control,” aiming at keeping the vast majority from sensitive materials and preventing
the nonconforming small minority from mounting a real challenge (Hartford, 2000).
Self-censorship. In addition to setting up technological restrictions to Internet infor-
mation at the infrastructure level, the Chinese government also put high pressure on
businesses and individuals to conform to its censorship in Internet commercial and
social use. For instance, governmental regulations after 2000 set a priority instituting
self-regulation and increasingly delegated policing power to nonstate sectors (Cheung,
2006; Endeshaw, 2004). Given their limited choices, high governmental pressure, and
potential stiff penalties, adopting “self-regulation” and complying with state censor-
ship seems to be the only viable option to business owners. In March 2002, for
example, the Internet Society of China (ISC) issued a “Public Pledge on
Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry” (zhongguo hulianwang hangye zilü
gongyue) in Beijing, establishing the foundation of domestic self-discipline mecha-
nism (Endeshaw, 2004, CNNIC Web site). Given the broad and vague nature of
government regulations, many businesses decided to play safe and end up with even
more sweeping censor mechanisms (e.g., Human Rights Watch, 2006; Sohmen, 2001).
China’s surveillance system also target foreign business investors in China. The
Chinese government gained technical support from foreign companies (e.g., Cisco,
Sun Microsystems) in building its Internet infrastructure (e.g., Qiu, 2003), yet required
Internet corporations such as Google, Inc., Yahoo!, inc., Microsoft Corp., and Skype
to comply with Chinese laws and regulations and to modify their Chinese version of
search engines to filter sensitive information (Battelle, 2005; Fry, 2006; Hinman,
2005; Human Rights Watch, 2006). In 2002, Yahoo! also voluntarily signed the
“Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry” (Dowell, 2006;
Human Rights Watch, 2006). Despite strong criticism from human rights activists,
these corporations have justified their censoring as necessary compliance with local
laws to run business (and the Chinese market is simply too large to ignore). Moreover,
foreign investors are specifically prohibited from owning, operating, or managing
telecommunications services in China. Even after its entry into the World Trade Orga-
nization (WTO) in 2001, the Chinese government carefully controlled its
telecommunication industry: foreign ownership is capped at 50% for value-added ser-
vices and 49% for mobile telephone and domestic and international services (Pangestu
& Mrongowius, 2002). Despite great hope by many (e.g., Dai, 2000; Deibert, 2002;
108 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(1)
Harwit & Clark, 2001), the impact of WTO on China’s democracy in general and
Internet censorship and control in particular remains unclear.
Multidimensional regulations. China’s legislation over Internet use and development
has definitely grown and become more comprehensive over time. The increasing leg-
islation also accompanied a series of changes in regulating agencies. As Tan (1999)
delineated, the pre-1994 era represented an experimental era characterized as a frag-
mented structure without a single authority; from 1994 to 1998, China witnessed a
transitional period, during which a single regulatory coordinator, the State Council’s
Steering Committee of National Information Infrastructure, was established to negoti-
ate and cooperate with other governmental agencies; in 1998, the Chinese government
merged the existing Ministry of Post and Telecommunications with the Ministry of
Electronics Industry to form one major single regulator, the Ministry of Information
Industry (MII). Since then, the MII has become the dominant regulator of China’s
Given the complex and comprehensive scope of China’s Internet regulations, how-
ever, many other agencies (e.g., State Council, Ministry of Public Security (MPS),
Ministry of Culture, and State Secrets Bureau) still have regulatory authorities in
Internet use and development and remain actively involved (Open Net Initiative,
2005; Zheng, 2008). While making comprehensive Internet control possible, the
involvement of multiple agencies and players also creates inefficiency, redundancy,
uncertainty, and confusion (Endeshaw, 2004; Qiu, 2003). In addition, the lack of sepa-
ration between state-owned operation and regulation (e.g., the MII is closely involved
with China Telecom which owns CHINANET) may enable agencies with regulatory
power to directly obtain financial gains (Sohmen, 2001).
One direct result of such a multidimensional regulatory system is the comprehen-
sive scope of agency regulations. Laws and regulations enacted over time cover a
broad range of issues from infrastructure construction to Internet network security,
Internet domain names registration, computer encryption, management of online busi-
ness operation, Internet news reporting and publication, and copyright protection. For
example, regulations in April 1996 stipulated that all domestic computer systems
could only be connected to Internet Interconnecting Networks via the gateways estab-
lished and managed by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (which was later
merged into the MII). The Administration of the Maintenance of Secrets in the Inter-
national Networking of Computer Information Systems Provisions in 2000 prohibited
Internet users from sending state secrets via email or discussing state secrets in Inter-
net chat rooms or on bulletin boards. The Administration of Engagement by Internet
Sites in the Business of News Publication Tentative Provisions in 2000 and Interim
Regulations for the Administration of the Internet Publications in 2002 tightened con-
trol over Internet news reporting and publication. Based on both, the only bona fide
news is official news from government sources such as the Xinhua News Agency and
the People’s Daily (renmin ribao); Internet organizations cannot cite foreign news
without official approval; all online publications must be inspected and approved as
well. The Regulations on the Administration of Business Sites of Internet Access
Liang and Lu 109
Services in 2002 (replacing the old one in 2001) requires that Internet business owners
(e.g., Internet cafés) keep records of users’ information for 60 days for government
Besides its broad scope, there are a number of other features about China’s legisla-
tion over time. First, China’s legislation is often vague and uncertain in nature. For
example, the key term “state secret” was ill-defined in the 2000 regulation cited above
(Tai, 2006). Some scholars (Cheung, 2006; Endeshaw, 2004; Keith & Lin, 2006;
Weber, 2002) pointed out that the Chinese government did this on purpose to ensure
ample room for its interpretation and manipulation. In addition, the uncertain and
unspecified broadness holds Internet business owners and users in constant fear and
therefore strengthens their self-censorship (Cheung, 2006). Second, many regulatory
measures are often post hoc reactions to unpredictable conditions (Endeshaw, 2004;
Qiu, 2003). As a result, many key regulations have been revised and refined over the
years to “bring social and economic life in line with a priori principles and expecta-
tions” (Endeshaw, 2004, p. 46). Third, many laws and regulations overlap and create
redundancy and confusion sometimes (e.g., due to different expectations and require-
ments between the Communist Party and the central administration), and such
confusion is reflected in the lack of coherent and consistent decision-making pro-
cesses and inconsistent enforcement (Endeshaw, 2004; Sohmen, 2001; Qiu,
Internet Development and Democracy,
E-Government, and Civic Engagement
Internet & democracy. Given China’s Internet censorship and authoritarian polity, a
question, often asked, is the relationship between Internet development and democra-
tization in China. There is a strong belief that Internet development, free flow of
information, and formation of civil cyber groups pose potential threat to authoritarian
regimes and China is no exception (Kluver, 2005; Tai, 2006; Taubman, 1998; Yang,
2003). However, Internet use and development in China has so far failed such an
expectation (Kalathil & Boas, 2001) and some even argue that the Internet has become
a new tool for governmental control (Tsui, 2003).
One possible answer could be found in the profile of Chinese Internet users. Besides
demographic changes over the years (e.g., greater Internet penetration rate, lesser
gender and geographic disparity), one consistent finding is the majority Chinese Inter-
net users’ apathy for political communications (Hong & Huang, 2005). Instead, the
majority of Chinese citizens use the Internet for gaming, entertainment, sports news,
celebrities, and study and career opportunities (Kluver, 2005). Furthermore, China’s
culture may have a role to play as well (Weber, 2002). Zhang, Chen, & Wen’s com-
parative study (2002), for example, found that compared to Americans, Chinese
Internet users are more supportive of a greater extent of government involvement in
Internet regulation, consistent with Chinese citizens’ general attitude toward a greater
role of the government in governing the society. It is not clear, however, why the
110 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(1)
majority of Chinese Internet users show little interest in political issues. More empiri-
cal studies need to address how Chinese Internet users feel about Internet use and
development, despite the heavy top-down approach adopted by the Chinese
E-government project. The Government Online Project (zhengfu shangwang
gongcheng) was kicked off in 1999. As part of this project, all government departments
are required to build their own Web sites and provide online management and service
functions (Lu et al., 2002; Wang, 2002). Registered government domain names (gov.
cn) increased from 323 in 1997 to 13,963 by July 2004 (3.7% of the total registered
domain names), and the number of Chinese government Web sites also amounted to
12,332 by 2004 (2.0% of the total Web sites) (Lagerkvist, 2005; Zheng, 2008, p. 38).
Through its E-government project, the Chinese government aims at reaching a
number of goals such as increasing government transparency and organizational effi-
ciency, strengthening propaganda (e.g., the opening of Tibet human rights Web site
recently, www.tibet328.cn), reestablishing legitimacy of the Communist Party, con-
taining or eradicating more pressing political problems (e.g., corruption), and gaining
better control over lower-level and/or local cadres (Kalathil & Boas, 2001; Kluver,
2005; Lagerkvist, 2005). In this process, governments at all levels are encouraged to
take advantage of the new computer information technology, and the central govern-
ment is eager to show its lead. On June 20, 2008, for example, President Hu Jintao
hosted his very first online communication with Web surfers, and Premier Wen Jiabao
followed suit on February 28, 2009. Such Internet communication between users and
top national leaders was hailed as a significant step toward “Internet politics” in which
Internet users’ political rights of information, participation, and supervision were
These e-projects also have an impact on the legal system. Take judicial reforms for
example. In 2009 the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) published its Outline of the 3rd
Five-Year Reform of the People’s Courts (2009-2013). To improve adjudication and
execution of judicial verdicts, the SPC proposes displaying judicial judgments online
whenever feasible. Several courts such as courts in Beijing, Henan, and Hebei have
already started such a practice as early as in 2003. By April 10, 2009, more than 160
basic courts and 50 intermediate level (appellate) courts have reportedly adopted such
a practice, and a total of 59,744 judicial judgments have been posted online at various
courts’ Web sites (News reported on April 10, 2009 at http://www.chinacourt.org/
html/article/200904/10/352466.shtml, last retrieved on April 29, 2009; the Legal
Daily, December 17, 2008; the People’s Daily, March 17, 2009). Most recently on
April 14, 2009, the official Web site of China’s courts (www.chinacourt.org) also
announced establishment of free email boxes at all courts to facilitate communication
between the courts and the public (News posted on April 14, 2009 at http://www
.chinacourt.org/html/article/200904/14/352922.shtml, last retrieved on April 29,
2009). Such a practice echoed similar moves by many administrative organizations
and leaders, which seemingly gained much support (Hartford, 2005). To go one step
further, some courts even started televising live trials online.
Liang and Lu 111
Civil engagement. It is not accurate that all Chinese Internet users shun away from
political issues in China. Rather, their participation shows in a unique form (often
event driven) at critical moments (sometimes unexpected). Given the growing mass of
Internet users, their online response, reaction, and participation have already created
an unexpected amplification of public engagement in some key events (Dowell, 2006;
Zheng, 2008). Take the 2009 “hiding from the cat” event for example. In January,
2009, Li Qiaoming was arrested for cutting down and stealing trees and put into jail in
Jinning county, Yunan province. On February 8th, Li was mysteriously injured and
died in a local hospital on the 12th. After a perfunctory investigation, local police and
procuratorate announced that Li got injured when he was playing a game called
“hiding from the cat” (duo maomao) with his jail mates. What was unexpected after
the official announcement this time was the strong criticism and questioning by Inter-
net users, and suddenly “hiding from the cat” became a new online bomb.
Under the pressure to discover and disclose the “truth”, the Chinese Communist
Party Propaganda Department in Yunan (CCPPDY) recruited five Internet users to
form a special investigation committee (and two Internet users even chaired the com-
mittee). On the 20th, the committee went to Jinning county and conducted its
investigation. Due to lack of access to key evidence (e.g., the coroner report, surveil-
lance tape of the jail, and interviewing jail mates), the committee could not reach a
conclusion and simply posted its investigation process online on the 21st.
On the 27th, the Public Security and Procuratorate officials of the Yunan province
announced the result of its official investigation. According to the report, Li was bul-
lied numerous times by his jail mates in jail and suffered injuries. On the 8th, his jail
mates blindfolded Li and beat him up. Li’s head was hit and bumped into the wall,
which eventually caused his death. Li’s jail mates made up the story of playing a game
to cover the truth. The report also disclosed various violations of prison management
rules and regulations by both prison guards and bully inmates and called for further
action. As a result, one director of the procuratorate in Jinning county was deposed,
and three jailmates were charged with assaults and sentenced in August along with
two prison guards who were found negligent (information summarized from various
The “hiding from the cat” event finally came to a conclusion but the term becomes
a new symbol among Chinese Internet users. It is true that public engagement in major
events such as the “hiding from the cat” is nonsystematic, spontaneous, and unpredict-
able. These events, however, do carry a great potential to shake political-legal reforms
in China to some extent.
Cyber Crimes: Control and Evolution
In comparison to Internet censorship and regulation, studies on China’s cyber crimes
(wangluo fanzui) are scarce. Similar to Western nations, cyber crimes are broadly
defined in China to cover crimes that are committed with the involvement of computer
information technology; cyber crimes are further classified into two large categories:
one on crimes directly targeting computer systems and information networks, and the
112 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(1)
other on crimes committed through the use of computers and their related networks
(Chen, 2004; Keith & Lin, 2006, p. 119).
Based on statistics from the MPS, Yu (2007) reported that the total number of
investigated cyber crimes in China was a little more than 400 in 1999; it jumped to
2,700 in 2000, 4,500 in 2001, and reached 6,633 in 2006. These numbers are no doubt
only the tip of the iceberg, as the Chinese official admitted that the authority could
have only managed to investigate 20% of estimate cyber crimes (News reported by the
Xinhua net.com in Tianjin on November 17, 2005, available at http://www.tj.xinhua.
org/misc/2005-11/17/content_5613021.htm, last retrieved on April 30, 2009). A report
from singtaonet.com in 2007 even listed China as the second largest cyber crime
nation in the world, only behind the United States (News reported at http://www.sing-
taonet.com/society_focus/200708/t20070810_595551.html, last retrieved on April 30,
Laws and regulations. Cyber crimes are not regulated by one single special law in
China. Rather, they are covered by a scope of laws and regulations with a comprehen-
sive nature as discussed above (Zhou, 2009). The first effort, the Ordinance for
Security Protection of Computer Information System issued by the State Council in
February 1994, gave the MPS the overall responsibility to supervise, inspect, and
guide the security protection of computer information systems and “to investigate
criminal activities” that undermine computer networks, though the ordinance failed to
specify the forbidden content (Tai, 2006).
The revised Criminal Law in 1997 (CL97) tried to formalize legislation on such
crimes in articles 285-287. Article 285 covered unauthorized criminal access to
computer-housed information concerning state affairs, national defense establishment
facilities, and sophisticated science and technology; article 286 stipulated crimes of
deleting from, altering, adding to, and interfering with computer information system,
causing abnormal operations and grave consequences, and addressed the creation and
spread of viruses; article 287 covered crimes concerning the use of a computer to carry
out financial fraud, stealing, embezzlement, the appropriation of public funds, the
stealing of state secrets, and other like criminal activities (Keith & Lin, 2006, p. 123).
To keep up with the new development of Internet use, the Standing Committee of
the National People’s Congress further issued a Decision Regarding the Maintenance
of Internet Security in 2000. The 2000 Decision places cyber crimes within six catego-
ries: (a) crimes disrupting the safe operation of computer networks; (b) crimes of
using the internet to fabricate and disseminate information harmful to national secu-
rity and social stability; (c) crimes of using the internet to disrupt the socialist market
economic order and the management of social order; (d) crimes of using the internet
to violate personal, property, and other legal rights of individuals, legal entities, and
other organizations; (e) illegal acts, using the internet, that are not serious enough to
warrant CL97 punishment, but could not be alternatively punished under the 1986
Provisions on Administrative Punishment concerning the Management of Public
Security; and (f) civil infringement and liability committed while using the internet
that are not serious enough to be punished according to either the CL97 or the 1986
Liang and Lu 113
Provisions (Keith & Lin, 2006, p. 128). Besides these two major laws (CL97 and 2000
Decision), many administrative rules and regulations are also adopted to cover various
instances of cyber crimes.
Pornography and online gambling. Due to this comprehensive nature of China’s regu-
lation, an array of crimes are targeted by the Chinese authority such as online fraud,
selling illegal goods, libel, invasion of personal privacy, manufacturing and dissemi-
nating computer virus, online gambling, and pornography (Chen, 2004). Though
online fraud constitutes the largest group of cyber crimes, the Chinese official has paid
more attention to online pornography and gambling, because these types of moral
crimes are often viewed as serious challenges to socialist social order.
In 1996, the Chinese authority took its first action against pornography on the Inter-
net by adopting the Interim Regulations on the Management of International
Networking of Computer Information. Article 13 of the regulation stipulated that
“Organizations and individuals who get involved in Internet business shall abide by
national laws, administrative regulations . . . shall not browse, copy and disseminate
harmful information to public security, and pornographic materials and information.”
Online pornography was once again prohibited under Article 5 of the Computer Infor-
mation Network and Internet Security, Protection and Management Regulations
(December 1997). Section (6) of the Article 5 prohibits any organization or individual
from manufacturing, copying, browsing, and disseminating information that “propa-
gates feudal superstitions; disseminates obscenity, pornography or gambling; incites
violence, murder, or terror; instigates others to commit offences.” As usual, such regu-
lations on pornography could also be found among many other regulations (Gomez,
One frequent target of the antipornography campaigns is Internet cafés (wangba).
Since their first debut in 1996, Internet cafés have gained tremendous growth. The
proportion of Internet café users as China’s total internet population soared from 3%
in 1999 to 21% in 2001; the total number of registered cafés reached 64,000 in 2002
and the number of users rose to 16 million in 2004, though the percentage remained
relatively stable between 15%-20% from 2002 to 2004 (Hong & Huang, 2005, p. 379;
Qiu & Zhou, 2005, pp. 266-267). Besides registered Internet cafés, unregistered ones
in China are virtually uncountable. Though they are heavy targets in crackdowns,
unregistered cafés (heiba, literally “black bar”) remain popular and sometimes out-
number the registered one in some cities, and a total of 110,000 were estimated by the
end of 2003 (Hong & Huang, 2005). Many features of Internet cafés make them popu-
lar among Chinese young Internet users, such as the private-business nature, relaxed
regulation, low cost, convenience, and updated equipments and services. Gaming and
group chat are very popular among Internet café goers and some even search for cen-
sored information and express their political opinions with the assumption that it is
easier to hide their identities there (Hong & Huang, 2005). Nevertheless, online por-
nography and violent games are the primary concerns for parents and the government.
China’s definition on pornography and violence are much broader and the government
tries to stop both in the real and the virtual worlds.
114 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(1)
Despite existence of various regulations (e.g., user registration, record keeping,
prohibition of smoking, filtering of gambling, and pornographic content, no entry for
those under 18, no Internet café in the vicinity of 200 meters of elementary and middle
schools), enforcement by café owners is very relaxed in practice (Qiu, 2003). The
government therefore has resorted to frequent crackdowns to clean up Internet cafés
since 2001. In 2002, for example, followed a deadly fire at an Internet café in Beijing
that killed 24, the government closed 3,300 cafés indefinitely and 12,000 others until
they improved their safety measures (Endeshaw, 2004); in 2003, another 27,000
unregistered cafés were shut down (Hong & Huang, 2005). Since 2003, the govern-
ment has also tried to push forward a chain-store model and hoped to tighten its control
through chain-store standard management (Hong & Huang, 2005; Qiu & Zhou, 2005).
The effect of such standardization, however, remains to be seen and it is unlikely that
the chain stores will take up the whole market, especially given the existence of many
unregistered cafés. In February 2007, 14 ministries and commissions further issued
the Circular Concerning Further Strengthening the Management of Internet Cafés
and Online Games, which regulates for the first time the virtual currency transaction
in online games (CNNIC).
In addition to physical control over Internet cafés, the Chinese government keeps
constant surveillance online via its infrastructural and technological equipments and
skills (e.g., blocking and filtering pornographic Web sites; Zittrain & Edelman, 2003),
and there are signs that the authority has stepped up such surveillance in recent years.
For example, the MPS in 2007 announced 10 major cyber crime cases that the author-
ity cracked in 2006 and 2007. Seven of the 10 were online obscenity, pornography,
and prostitution-related cases (News posted by Xinhua.net on April 13, 2007 at http://
news.qq.com/a/20070413/001256.htm, last retrieved on April 30, 2009). The CNNIC
also stepped up its role and has been exposing and cleaning up Web sites where por-
nographic, vulgar, and degrading contents were found. Twenty such Web sites were
exposed in the CNNIC’s ninth and tenth public postings this year, and even foreign
investors such as Google were targeted (see the People’s Daily, February 24, 2009;
http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2009-04-10/135817584966.shtml, last retrieved on April
30, 2009; the Straits Times, January 6, 2009).
Compared to pornography, online gambling is seemingly less prevalent in China
(especially given the increasing popularity of traditional gambling), but the scale and
impact of such crimes is still staggering. Citing data from the China Center for Lottery
Studies at Beijing University, Wang (2009) reported that more than 300 billion Yuan
(RMB) were transferred out of China and were invested in online gambling abroad in
2008 alone, and so did more than 600 billion Yuan in 2006. Systematic data and
research on online gambling are extremely lacking and the public only gains a glimpse
of the scale of such crimes through occasional news reports. On February 15, 2009, for
instance, the largest-ever Shanghai online gambling case was tried in Shanghai and
more than 20 defendants were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. These
offenders reportedly managed to build a rather sophisticated online gambling scheme
and amassed more than 6.6 billion Yuan in 2006 and 2007 (Wang, 2009). As mentioned
Liang and Lu 115
above, much of online gambling action and funds was shoved abroad to avoid tight
control and severe punishment domestically, making governmental investigation more
New crimes and regulations. In addition to traditional cyber crimes, China also strug-
gles with many new issues of Internet use. Take the “human flesh search” (renrou
sousuo in Chinese), for example, in the last few years. Though targeted online people
search started as early as 2001, the term did not draw enough attention until 2006. In
2006, a video clip was posted online in which a woman stomped a cat to death with
her high-heeled shoes. Once the clip was posted, angered Internet users initiated the
first mass search of the perpetrator. Soon she was found to be a nurse in Heilongjiang
province. Under the pressure, her hospital fired her and she had to make an open apol-
ogy for her misbehavior (information gathered and summarized from various internet
As the “kitten killer” fell as the first “victim”, “human flesh search” has quickly
become a powerful new tool by Web surfers to expose and hunt for immoral and
unethical individuals who are labeled “human flesh”. Although such a practice gained
more popularity and strength, concerns on potential abuse and invasion of people’s
privacy started looming. In December 2007, a white-collar worker, Jiang Yang, com-
mitted suicide by jumping off the 24th floor balcony of her apartment in Beijing. In
her blog (written before her death), she blamed her suffering to her unfaithful husband
Wang Fei and posted a picture of Wang and his new lover. After her death, angry Inter-
net users, led by a college classmate of Jiang, turned to “human flesh search”, posted
all detailed information of Wang and his family online in a short time, and even sent
Wang death threat emails and painted curses at his place. Wang lost his job as a result
and suffered tremendous distress. In March 2008, Wang sued three Web sites where
his information was posted for cyber violence and privacy violation. In February
2009, the people’s court in the Chaoyang district in Beijing ruled in Wang’s favor and
awarded him 8,000 Yuan. This trial is quickly labeled as the first case of “human flesh
search” and the first case of cyber violence, though public debates continue to support
or question the use of “human flesh search” (information from various internet sources;
Magnier, 2008; Wu, 2009). More recently in October 2008, Lin Ming, from Anhui
province, tracked down his ex-girlfriend Zhou Chunmei, whom he got to know online,
via “human flesh search,” and stabbed her to death in Xinxiang, Henan province. In
April, 2009, Lin was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by the Xinxiang
Intermediate People’s Court (information from various internet sources).
Facing rampant use of the “human flesh search,” many people including scholars
called for new regulation. While the central government is moving slow, local govern-
ments took the first action. In January 2009, Xuzhou city in Jiangsu province adopted
a new ordinance, the Computer Information System Security Protection Ordinance in
Xuzhou City. The new regulation specifically prohibits misuse of the “human flesh
search” and stipulates that violators could be subjected to a fine up to 5,000 Yuan and
banned from accessing Internet services. Internet users who favor the “human flesh
search” quickly question Xuzhou’s new regulation and believe that it will carry a
116 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(1)
negative effect on Internet use and development in China (reports at http://tech.163
.com/09/0119/04/500BCRE0000915BF.html, last retrieved on May 1, 2009; the
Guangzhou Daily, January 20, 2009; Ye, 2009). Amid continuing debate, “human
flesh search” represents an example of Internet evolution in China and the government
will definitely face more such challenges in future.
Since China’s first global Internet connection in 1994, a mere 15 years has passed.
However, China’s Internet development in such a short time has been eye-catching
and China has already had the largest Internet users of the world by 2008. The impact
of Internet use and development has been enormous and it is evident in almost every
aspect of people’s lives in China. Such dramatic changes have left ample room for
scholars’ research, potentially covering a broad scope of issues and subjects.
Nevertheless, social studies on Internet use and development have been primarily
concentrated on the implications of the Internet for China’s democratization, and the
main concern is therefore state censorship, control, and regulation (Tsui, 2005). As we
reviewed in this article, the Chinese government has, from the very beginning, adopted
a “top-down, hands-on” approach in its plans and investments of telecommunications
industry and tried to facilitate the national economic growth and maintain its political
control at the same time. Tight control and regulation are implemented through a mul-
tidimensional approach involving multiple agencies and players and cover both
Internet infrastructure and commercial and social use. All these requirements and
measures eventually are backed up by various laws and regulations, aiming at a com-
prehensive control of Internet use and development.
Though there is strong hope internationally for China’s democracy potentially led
by Internet development, free flow of information, and formation of civil groups, an
increasing number of scholars are realizing that the Internet is a double-edged sword.
As a technology tool, the Internet cannot be isolated from social context in which its
use and development is inevitably intertwined with habits, beliefs, and values in a
specific culture (Tsui, 2005). The borderless nature of Internet information is also
subject to control of local laws and regulations within boundaries (Goldsmith & Wu,
2006). China’s testing case seems to prove just that. This is not, however, to deny the
great impact that the Internet has brought to the Chinese society. We have seen ample
evidence, especially in recent years, that the Internet empowers both the government
and the general public to move forward political-legal reforms. Indeed, the Internet
provides another tool for the public to better participate in such processes. To what
extent that this type of government–public e-interaction will lead to democratization,
however, still remains to be seen.
Although Internet use and development prompted economic development in China,
it also led to rising cyber crimes, a topic largely understudied. Similar to its approach
toward Internet regulation in general, the Chinese government combined its criminal
laws with many other administrative rules and regulations to cover cyber crimes com-
prehensively (online pornography and gambling are such examples). Besides
Liang and Lu 117
conventional cyber crimes, the Chinese government struggles with new phenomena
such as the “human flesh search” and ponders the costs and benefits of new legislation
and regulation. It is clear that China will face more challenges, both legally and politi-
cally, in its further transition in the new century, and the role of the Internet is still to
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interests with respect to their authorship or
the publication of this article.
The authors declared that they received no financial support for their research and/or authorship
of this article.
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Bin Liang is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Oklahoma State
University–Tulsa. He has published numerous articles on crime and the legal system in China.
He is also the author of two books, titled The Changing Chinese Legal System, 1978—Present:
Centralization of Power and Rationalization of the Legal System with Routledge (2008) and
China’s Drug Practices and Policies: Regulating Controlled Substances in a Global Context
120 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(1)
with Ashgate (2009). His current research interests include globalization and its impact on the
Chinese legal system, crime and deviance in China, and the drug court in Tulsa County,
Hong Lu is associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at University of
Nevada, Las Vegas. She has published extensively in the fields of sociology of law and
“Snitches End Up in Ditches”
and Other Cautionary Tales*
Edward W. Morris
University of Kentucky
Department of Sociology
Patterson Office Tower 1569
Lexington, KY 40506-0027
* This research was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. I thank the staff and
students at Clayton and Woodrow Wilson High Schools for sharing their time and thoughts with
me. I thank Joseph De Angelis, Aaron Kupchik for helpful comments on previous drafts. The
views expressed here are solely those of the author.
“Snitches End Up in Ditches” and Other Cautionary Tales
This paper examines the “stop snitching” phenomenon in relation to teenagers and schooling. It
shows evidence of a code against sharing information with formal authorities among students at
two low income schools: a predominately black, urban school and a predominately white, rural
school. Using Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, the analysis demonstrates how anti-snitching is
woven into the social fabric of these communities, prompting student ambivalence toward
school-sanctioned methods of conflict resolution. The findings highlight the broad reach of the
anti-snitching phenomenon, situating this mentality as the result of community-based distrust of
formal authority. The paper assesses implications of anti-snitching for school discipline and
Keywords: School discipline; Criminalization; Urban education; Rural education; Habitus
“Snitches End Up in Ditches” and Other Cautionary Tales
A mantra of “stop snitching” has become popular in various communities throughout the
country. This motto – famously trumpeted by several hip hop artists – appears on t-shirts, in
song lyrics, and in films. It discourages revealing information to authorities that could directly
lead to a conviction, such as witnesses who are offered reduced sentences in exchange for
providing evidence against their criminal associates. Recently, evidence suggests that “stop
snitching” has broadened into a more general “street code” (Anderson 1999; Rosenfeld, Jacobs,
and Wright 2003) which castigates any cooperation with police or other authorities. Some might
adhere to the “no snitching” precept from simple fear of retaliation, and some might genuinely
believe that cooperating with police creates more harm than good. Regardless, the newest
incarnation of this longstanding ethos among criminals has trickled out into larger segments of
society, including otherwise law-abiding people (Kahn 2007).
In this paper, I examine the “stop snitching” phenomenon in relation to teenagers and
schooling. Based on a comparative ethnography of two low-income high schools, I find
evidence of anti-snitching principles among students. My findings build on previous research in
several ways. First, my findings demonstrate the burgeoning purview of anti-snitching. I locate
an anti-snitching mentality among high school students who were not career criminals, and even
among well-behaved, school-attached students. In addition, the comparative design of my
ethnography examines a predominately black, urban school and a predominately white, rural
school. Surprisingly, I found evidence of a stop snitching code among students at both schools.
This research also extends existing literature by connecting anti-snitching to research on school
disengagement. Previous work has understood “stop snitching” primarily from the perspective
of criminological theories, but linking it to education-focused theories can enhance our
understanding of snitching within the context of schools. Specifically, I employ Bourdieu’s
concept of habitus to understand how anti-snitching becomes woven into the social fabric of
some communities, prompting student ambivalence toward school-sanctioned methods of
There is limited but informative research on the “stop snitching” phenomenon. Most research on
anti-snitching stems from samples of active criminal offenders. Rosenfeld, Jacobs, and Wright
(2003) interviewed street offenders, asking about their perceptions of the police and police
informants. Their results revealed strong antipathy for police. Interviewees recounted stories of
police bias, invasive surveillance, and brutality. In logical extension, these interviewees reported
acute distrust of police, and no desire to aid law enforcement. Even if interviewees stated that
they themselves were victimized, they still disavowed seeking police help. These offenders thus
adhered to a “code of the street” (Anderson 1999) in which “respect, security, and status come
only to those with the proven ability to take care of their own business” (Rosenfeld et al. 2003:
298). These offenders emphasized resolving their own conflicts, without interference from
external sources of authority.
Anti-snitching thus suggests an alternative set of group norms. Topalli (2005) explores
the normative implications of snitching further, demonstrating an inversion of norms among
street offenders, in which being “good” is interpreted negatively. The interviewees in Topalli’s
(2005) study reported that it is wrong to “snitch,” or tell the police any information about crime,
even if that crime could involve injury or death. This code of anti-snitching was so ingrained,
respondents appeared to feel guilty if they had worked with the police at all, and contrived
justifications for their cooperation to assuage this guilt (Topalli 2005; see also Rosenfeld et al.
2003). Thus, based on the small but informative literature on anti-snitching, this phenomenon
appears to be an outgrowth of a street code among criminals that inverts conventional social
norms. As Topalli (2005: 810-811) states, “where middle-class people would be chastised or
sanctioned for failing to contact the police in response to witnessed criminal activity, those who
inhabit the urban landscape (specifically hardcore offenders) are sanctioned for the opposite.”
But many questions remain about the code of anti-snitching. While groundbreaking, the
studies discussed above rely on urban and African American samples of street offenders. How
do people not involved in criminal activity, but residing in low-income urban areas, view
“snitching”? Anti-snitching has also been couched primarily in the African American
community, interpreted as something emerging from the historical distrust of the criminal justice
system (Kahn 2007; Pitts 2009). But what is the perception of this code from people of other
racial/ethnic groups, especially those living in low-income communities? Is anti-snitching a
“black thing” or does it result more precisely from conditions of economic deprivation and
perceptions of inequality? “Stop snitching” has also been interpreted as message that can
influence youth, particularly because of its promotion among popular hip hop artists. However,
studies of this phenomenon have focused on adults and their interactions with criminal justice
authorities. How might snitching be interpreted by youths, and how might this influence their
interactions within schools?
Through this final question, I intend to merge criminological and educational areas of
study concerning this problem. As I find, “stop snitching” has implications not only for criminal
justice, but for more common enactments of school discipline. Further, educational literature can
provide a different angle on anti-snitching, framing it as indicative of a distinct “habitus”
(Bourdieu 1977) in which handling one’s own problems takes strategic precedent over seeking
external means of enforcement. In criminological terms, this is closer to a “value attenuation”
model in which distrust of law enforcement stems primarily from interpretations that it is unfair,
rather than an entirely separate, subcultural value system (Carr, Napolitano, and Keating 2007).
Students in my study employed practices under a context of institutional skepticism, which
extended to school authorities. The students encouraged standing up for oneself and resolving
conflicts independently, and discouraged telling school authorities about altercations. To
understand this further, I turn to Bourdieu’s explanations for school disconnection.
Stop Snitching and Habitus
The theoretical framework of Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1977; 1990; Bourdieu and Passeron
1977; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992) has been influential in the sociology of education. Habitus
is one of the more oblique and controversial of Bourdieu’s concepts. It is most directly defined
as “a system of…dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions…as a matrix of
perceptions, appreciations, and actions” (Bourdieu 1977:82-83). Bourdieu modified the concept
throughout his career. He employed habitus as a connection between external social structures
and the internal guiding principles of individuals – a mechanism through which people
internalize structured experiences and subsequently develop strategies for future action which
reproduce and modify objective social structures. Although habitus frames strategies for action,
it operates “below the level of calculation and even consciousness” (Bourdieu and Wacquant
1992). Thus, habitus, as the name implies, consists of habitual inclinations for action,
internalized by individuals without overt deliberation. It consists of what feels “natural,”
“correct,” and “commonsensical” to people. It is more mutable and logical than a “value
system” because people – individually and in groups – develop a distinctive habitus based on
perceptions of material conditions, and this may be altered through continuing experience and
interpretation (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). People develop unique dispositions and creative
strategies for action depending on the particular social conditions and experiences they
Applying the concept of habitus to anti-snitching, such an ethos might stem from distrust
for external authority based on a collective or individual history of negative experiences. Youths
socialized within communities where institutions such as the police or the school are perceived
as historically unfair may develop skepticism of these institutions. Further, the harsh
environments of disadvantaged communities necessitate demonstrating toughness and handling
situations without the aid of external authority (Anderson 1999). These historical and structural
conditions combine to forge a habitus which discourages blithe cooperation with external
authorities. This is not the same as adopting an alternative value system in which criminal
behavior or school opposition is valorized. Anti-snitching, from this perspective, is not the
frightening outgrowth of a subversive street code. Instead, it simply reflects a practical
disposition against earnestly trusting and utilizing institutionalized authority. It does not imply
absolute, abstract opposition, but rather a situated “logic of practice” deploying strategic
resistance to particular enactments of authoritative power (Bourdieu 1990) . As Bourdieu
states, “people are not fools; they are much less bizarre or deluded than we would spontaneously
believe precisely because they have internalized, through a protracted and multi-sided process of
conditioning, the chances they face” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 130). As I will show, the
anti-snitching mantra does not necessarily indicate oppositional values, but reflects a habitus that
disposes certain youths to resolve disputes independently and view the intervention of
disciplinary organizations such as police and schools pessimistically.
Data for this study come from a comparative ethnography of two high schools in Ohio. I
conducted fieldwork at these schools from January, 2006 until June, 2007. One of the schools
was an urban school that I call Woodrow Wilson High School (all personal and place names are
pseudonyms). At the beginning of my fieldwork, the student body of this school was 91 percent
African American, with 76 percent of its students classified as economically disadvantaged
based on free or reduced lunch status. The second school was a rural school that I call Clayton
High School. Clayton’s student body was 98 percent white and 54 percent economically
disadvantaged at the beginning of my fieldwork.
My fieldwork consisted primarily of observations and interviews. At both schools I
observed in classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms, after school events, and school related
ceremonies. I visited both schools from 1 to 4 days per week over the course of my research,
briefly recording observations in a small notebook. Upon leaving the field each day, I expanded
these “jottings” into more developed fieldnotes (Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw 1995). I recorded
notes as quickly as possible after observation, or in some cases during the progress of that
observation (such as within classrooms), to increase fidelity (Lofland et al. 2006). During the
process of fieldwork, I informally interviewed and conversed with numerous teachers and
administrators. Because of the small size of Clayton (less than 350 students), I was able to get to
know teachers and administrators there quickly. At Woodrow Wilson, a larger school of nearly
1,000 students, I focused on particular classrooms, where I got to know 10 teachers well through
regular contact. I formally interviewed 31 students – 15 from Clayton and 16 from Woodrow
Wilson. These interviews followed a semi-structured format and were audio-recorded. I used
the technique of purposive sampling to vary the sample according to gender and achievement
level within each school (Lofland et al. 2006). Sixteen of the interviewees identified as “male”
and 15 as “female.” Seventeen interviewees identified as “white” or “Caucasian” and 14 as
“black” or “African American.” The sample included students near the top and near the bottom
of their class rankings. All students were either sophomores or freshman in high school at the
time of the interview, and ranged in age from 14 to 17 years.
The comparative ethnography concentrated on intersections of race, class, and gender on
school engagement. However, as an ethnographer, I remained open to making new discoveries
in the field. This paper stems from one of these unexpected discoveries. As part of my interest
in gender and school engagement, I asked students questions about fighting and discipline, which
both have implications for enactments of gender as well as school detachment. In the process of
this questioning, I noticed in the initial, open coding of my data that several students at both
schools discussed “snitching,” although this was not a specified question. I then coded data in a
more “focused” manner for the subtheme of snitching, linking this to perceptions of discipline
and conflict resolution (see Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw 1995 for a discussion of open and focused
coding). I then grouped the results of this focused coding into themes relevant to snitching,
which form the basis for the analysis below.
“You Haveta Get Respect”
My interviews initially revealed that physical fighting constituted an important method of
conflict resolution at both schools, especially for boys but to a lesser extent for girls (Morris
2008). I asked students if there was any acceptable way to avoid fights or other sorts of
confrontation. Most said that social pressure virtually required a person to physically fight if
challenged. Rather than describing this pressure as oppressive, however, students at both schools
underscored the utility of “standing up for yourself” and handling one’s own problems. This
mentality was part of the habitus that logically extended to anti-snitching principles.
A boy named Travis at Clayton described the severity of the environment and the
importance of gaining respect:
Travis: It’s worse [to try to avoid a fight]. At least if you get the crap beat out of you
people are like “hey, at least you tried man, get ‘em back next time” or something like
that, but if you try to get out of it you’re probably gonna get beat up anyway and get
picked on. […] It’s actually kinda like a prison. Like if someone is like dissin’ you or
somethin’ you haveta, you haveta like get respect…And if you get disrespected you gotta
do something about it or…you get beat up or you get picked on or somethin’.
In comparing the code within the school to a prison, Travis emphasizes the importance of
achieving respect based on physical toughness and daring. This ethos was so strong at both
schools that students appeared bemused when I asked them if telling a teacher could be a viable
route to resolving a conflict. A boy named Roger at Clayton stated that someone who employed
school authority instead of fighting would get called a “pussy.” Roger told a story of a boy at the
school who was ridiculed for telling the principal and refusing to fight and after another boy stole
money from him. I asked Roger what he would do in a similar situation:
Edward Morris: Well like if someone steals money from you like that, what would you
have done, would you have told the principal, or would you go to them and try to get the
Roger: That – if they stole 150 bucks off me – I’d go straight to ‘em and kicked their ass
pretty good. If they didn’t give it back to me, I’d beat it outta them.
This interest in personal conflict resolution reflects what Bourdieu refers to as group or
“class” habitus (Bourdieu 1977). Students discussed a general, taken-for-granted sentiment in
their milieu that emphasized particular actions regarding conflict resolution. At both schools,
this sentiment encouraged individuals to address disputes on their own, without the aid of
institutionalized social control. For many students – especially boys, but some girls – this
habitus encouraged using physical violence to protect oneself and others. Physical confrontation
allowed someone to avoid being seen as a “pushover” and gain “respect.” Students did not relate
such sentiments to following a broader, overt anti-school and anti-authority street code. Many
(including Courtney quoted above) invested considerable energy in school and emphasized the
importance of academics. Instead, such sentiments better represent a general, inculcated habitus
– “schemes of thought and expression” – that stressed certain strategies of action based on
certain objective conditions (Bourdieu 1977: 79). These schemes of thought operated “without
any intentional calculation or reference to a norm” (Bourdieu 1977: 80). Thus, students
described fighting and standing up for oneself as important, useful strategies of action, and did
not necessarily interpret these strategies as delinquent or oppositional.
Context: Distrust of Authority
Bourdieu (1977: 80) emphasized that group habitus stems from sharing similar circumstances
and experiences, or what he called the “homogeneity of the conditions of existence.” Students at
both schools shared present and historical conditions under which external sources of authority
were regarded with suspicion rather than blind faith. Such conditions formed a logical
foundation for the development of a habitus that emphasized empowerment and protection
through personal actions rather than through institutions of authority. This perception of
authority differed somewhat at each school. At Woodrow Wilson, a predominately African
American school, perceptions of racial discrimination appeared to play a prominent role in the
cynicism of authority (see also Anderson 1999; Hagan, Shedd, and Payne 2005). At Clayton, a
rural school, this cynicism stemmed from the stigma associated with family reputation (Batteau
1982; Duncan 1999).
Race-based distrust of authority has been emphasized in much of the research and popular
discussion of anti-snitching. For example, in an article about the anti-snitching code, the
newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts (2009: D2) writes: “Yes, some of us [African Americans]
have a well-founded and deep seated distrust of the criminal justice system.” I saw evidence of
this skepticism from many students at Woodrow Wilson. For example, “stop snitching” shirts
were prohibited at the school, but I observed students wearing other shirts that suggested an anti-
criminal justice stance, such as one that read “if you see da police…warn a brotha.” Such
suspicion appeared even more overtly on posters that U.S. history students had made about their
perceptions of America. To be sure, these posters overwhelmingly contained positive statements
and imagery. However, the sanguine statements were tempered with cynical ones, such as
“America would be a better place without racism,” and “the justice system in this country
This pessimistic stance towards the criminal justice system is well documented in
predominately African American communities, especially in inner cities. This has led many to
presume that the anti-snitching mentality is an African American phenomenon. The comparative
design of my ethnography, however, revealed that “stop snitching” is not just present in urban,
African American communities. I found evidence of the same mantra at the predominately
white, rural school in my research. This demonstrates that anti-snitching is not simply a
subversive street code championed by gang-influenced African American rappers, as many
commentators have intimated (e.g. Kahn 2007; Pitts 2009). Instead, my research shows that anti-
snitching emerges from certain experiences and conditions of existence that have marginalized
people from institutions of authority. Some white rural students in my research shared similar
experiences and perceptions of authority to black urban students. These perceptions stemmed
primarily from family reputation in the community.
Within urban areas, race creates salient dividing lines and inequalities, particularly apparent in
predominately minority “inner cities” and predominately white “suburbs” (Massey and Denton
1993; Bonilla-Silva and Embrick 2007). In the predominately white rural area of my research
such distinctly racialized urban divisions were less noticeable. A more conspicuous dividing line
in this community was family reputation, or “family name” as they called it at Clayton. As in
many rural areas, especially in Appalachia, the community was symbolically divided into “good
families” and “bad families” (Batteau 1982; Duncan 1999). This meant that some families
carried a “bad” stigma, interpreted as backwards, lazy, and deviant. Students at Clayton openly
discussed the importance of “family name.” Those who professed to have a “bad” family name
often perceived institutions such as the school and the local police to be unfairly biased against
A student named Brent, for example, got in trouble frequently at school for fighting and
other forms of insubordination. I actually took him out of in-school suspension (where he spent
much of his school time) to interview him. In the interview, Brent described how the elite
families in the community looked down on him and his family. He suggested that this bias
against his family extended to the police: “Me and Clayton cops don’t get along (laughs). My
family has a bad reputation with them.” In school, he described fellow students from elite
families as the “preps” and stated that they “think they’re better than everyone else.” Brent
intimated that preps and their families held power over major community institutions such the
school and the police. He gave examples of how he had, in his estimation, been punished
unfairly in school: “Ever’ time the principal gets a hair up his ass he wants to call the cops on us.
And I can’t stand the cops. I do not get along with them. So…that’s not good.”
This distrust of the police and the perceived connection between police and school
administration encouraged Brent, like other students at both schools, to emphasize resolving his
own conflicts. As he stated: “The way I see it – if you can handle the problem by yourself there
is no sense in callin’ the cops.” At Clayton, students like Brent who described having a “bad
family name,” were more likely in my interviews to eschew the use of school or police authority
and to specifically invoke an anti-snitching mantra. These students shared experiences and were
socialized into a mindset that produced serious misgivings about school and police authority.
Such misgivings formed the catalyst for the development of an anti-snitching mentality among
students at both schools.
“Snitches End Up in Ditches”
The skepticism regarding institutional authority and interest in “handling the problem by
yourself” congealed into a habitus that discouraged snitching. The lexicon of “snitching” was
perhaps derived from popular media, but it found purchase among students at both schools
because of their particular conditions of experience. Interestingly, various students at both
schools described this same anti-snitching code, including girls and boys, and academically
engaged and disengaged students.
A student named Kaycee at Clayton stated that she “didn’t have a good last name,” but
she performed well academically, participated in several sports and activities at the school, took
advanced “college prep” courses, and planned on attending a four-year college. Yet she also
portrayed an anti-snitching stance:
EM: Does anybody avoid fights by telling a teacher or telling [the principal], like “hey
this person’s messing with me” – can that be done, or is that worse?
Kaycee: Yeah, ‘cause they’ll still want to fight you after school, so there’s no point. […]
They’re gonna be like, snitch! Snitch! Snitches end up in ditches! [said like a chant].
EM: So there’s kind of a code in the community for not snitching?
Kaycee: Right. Yeah, everyone knows that snitches end up in ditches.
Previous research has assumed anti-snitching to be a primarily urban, African American
phenomenon. But Kaycee depicts it as a community code in the almost entirely white, rural
community of Clayton. This suggests that anti-snitching might be more widespread than
commonly believed. And as the students state, this mentality not only functioned within
community life, but also infiltrated schools, affecting school discipline and conflict. Just as
street offenders in previous research (Rosenfeld et al. 2003; Topalli 2005) eschewed working
with police, so too did my student interviewees eschew working with school authorities.
Maintaining the Anti-snitching Code
This perspective on snitching might ostensibly point to an inverted value system. However, a
deeper analysis of the interviews reveals a more flexible, strategic assessment of snitching. The
mantra of “stop snitching” is associated with organized crime, and earlier manifested itself in the
mafia enforcement of “omerta” or the code of silence (Kahn 2007). Interestingly, Janna at
Clayton referenced the mafia in her description of anti-snitching social control:
EM: But if somebody’s gonna get, if somebody else is gonna get hurt because of it
[snitching], like if the cops are gonna get into it, then it’s not okay?
Janna: Like, if the cops are gonna come after you because they know something is gonna
hurt you, maybe…But it’s like the mafia. It would be like the mafia. And that way – it
would be wrong, but kinda right, like both. You should, but then you shouldn’t. And plus
if you did, then they’d come after you then!
This quote demonstrates Janna’s ambivalence about snitching. She indicates that in some cases,
snitching might be acceptable. She also appears to understand how some might see anti-
snitching as wrong, saying it would be “wrong, but kinda right.” Kenda, a student at Woodrow
Wilson, expressed a similar ambivalence when she said “like they say that [telling a teacher is]
what we’re supposed to do, but it’s kind of messed up that we can’t.” Students seemed to realize
that telling someone about a conflict was encouraged by formal authorities, but strongly
discouraged under certain circumstances within their social milieu. Thus “snitching” had to be
Students perceived utilizing formal authorities as ineffective, which can be seen as part of
a habitus that emphasized independent conflict resolution. A girl named Shontae at Woodrow
Wilson said this:
You don’t want to do that [snitch] because it comes back to you in a negative way. […]
Like I can understand telling an administrator or something like “so and so just fought
somebody” or “they’re over there fighting,” like I can understand telling something like
that. But if you’re telling somebody before it actually happens…that just makes the
Students at both schools thus described anti-snitching as internally ingrained, but also somewhat
variable. This highlights the “practical sense” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 22) of the anti-
snitching code: it depended largely on the situation, and students underscored that snitching was
less effective than resolving disputes independently.
As I mentioned, even high performing, school-attached students demonstrated an anti-
snitching stance. Ivory at Woodrow Wilson, for example, was actually the top-ranked student in
her class academically when I interviewed her. Yet even she disavowed snitching:
Ivory: I think they would probably like just handle [a student dispute] themselves instead
of telling a teacher or something like that. But then again when I was in middle school
that [snitching] did happen. And everybody just got on the girl for doing that. Because I
think she told one of her teachers […] So I don’t think, like I don’t think people should
just go and tell it.
Thus, even a school-focused student such as Ivory thought that snitching was not effective, again
emphasizing handling conflicts without interference from school authorities. Such sentiments
should not imply the acceptance of broader oppositional values. Ivory, along with many of my
interviewees, did not oppose school, resist authority, or adhere to a criminal street culture. The
anti-snitching mentality instead emerged from a habitus that emphasized self-reliance born from
logical skepticism of external, formal means of control. Anti-snitching and subcultural values
are not the same thing – someone can be cynical of school or police authority without opposing
education or criminal justice in the abstract. Ivory herself makes this distinction quite clear.
Although she expressed and described an anti-snitching mentality, she was a student leader of an
active peer-mediation group at the school. In this group, Ivory and other students helped
classmates resolve problems themselves without the direct intervention of school officials. Far
from an acceptance of fighting or other forms of insubordination, this group worked within the
confines of anti-snitching norms to settle differences and maintain a positive school climate.
Through this example we can envision ways forward for research and school policy regarding
This paper advances the sociological study of crime and education in several ways. First, it
demonstrates the broad reach of the “stop snitching” mentality. Previously, most commentators
located this code almost exclusively within the African American community, and among street
offenders. My research reveals acceptance of this mentality among teenage high school students,
white rural teenagers, and high achieving students attached to school through participation in
school sponsored activities, clubs, and sports. My research adds to previous work on snitching
(Rosenfeld et al. 2003; Topalli 2005) by finding anti-snitching adherence among rural people as
well as people who are not hardcore criminal offenders. These amendments call for a new way
of understanding anti-snitching which links it to an organic and local outgrowth of current and
historical structured experience. It is not a function of race, urban location, or criminal activity
necessarily, but rather a collective response to institutional marginalization, which may be found
within a number of disadvantaged communities.
I suggest that Bourdieu’s notion of habitus helps explain the problem of anti-snitching.
Habitus can capture the fact that “stop snitching” has indeed become codified in certain
communities. However, because of the flexibility and experiential basis of habitus, it does not
imply that anti-snitching is rooted in torpid oppositional values. Instead, Bourdieu’s framework
emphasizes the structured experience (historical and current marginalization from formal
authority) that forges a set of perceptions (distrust of formal authority; emphasis on personal
dispute resolution), allowing for the nesting of anti-snitching principles and strategies of action.
None of my interviewees were active criminals, and it is unlikely that many will become such
criminals. Yet, they described a way of handling disputes that differed from conventional rules
proffered by police, school, and middle-class America. This does not mean that they adopted an
oppositional value system, just that they developed a different strategy of action that
circumvented formal, institutionalized means of social control.
The concept of habitus also provides a different way for school and other forms of
institutionalized authority to combat the problem of anti-snitching. The “stop snitching”
mentality and the way many school authorities currently respond to student disputes form a
seemingly intractable impasse. As many of my respondents indicated, students should feel safe
and not intimidated in their schools (and communities). A blanket social code against working
with authorities can compromise safety if not acted upon appropriately by these authorities.
Much previous commentary regarding anti-snitching, especially in the popular press, has simply
denigrated it as a subversive form of oppositional intimidation. This view can lead to methods of
policing or school discipline that “get tough” with potential troublemakers in a misguided
attempt to fracture this code (Rosenfeld et al. 2003). A similar approach involves the use of
school resource officers to infiltrate student networks and “establish a bond of trust” in order to
procure tips that could lead to student arrests (Newman et al. 2004: 281). My findings suggest
that such criminal justice-inspired policies would exacerbate the code of silence. Because stop
snitching emerges from a logical and durable habitus based on ambivalence to authority and an
emphasis on independent conflict-resolution, cracking down with more authoritarian or invasive
measures would only increase the code’s strength. Particularly if students perceive strict or
invasive school discipline as biased, they might resist school authority more vehemently,
increasing the social distance between students and the school (Kupchik and Ellis 2008).
A better approach to resolving student conflicts in low-income schools is an active peer
mediation program. Ivory and some other students at Woodrow Wilson engaged in this program,
but it was small and did not adequately pervade the school. More active programs such as this
could be effective because they recognize and build from a habitus emphasizing conflict
resolution among peers, instead of challenging this habitus by threatening punishment from
external formal authority.
Finally, this paper suggests the need for more research in criminology and sociology of
education on anti-snitching and perceptions of formal authority. Future research might explore
other variations in acceptance of this mentality, such as why law-abiding people in
disadvantaged communities might agree (or disagree) with “stop snitching.” Gender could serve
as another interesting line of research. Most of the outspoken critics of snitching and enforcers
of anti-snitching (both now and historically) have been men, but my results do not show
discernable gender differences. Because of the relationship between gender and crime
(Messerschmidt 2000; Miller 2001), there is probably more to the story of snitching and gender.
This and other work on “snitching” has potential to teach us more about how students perceive
school authority and suggest more effective and fair ways to create a positive school climate.
1. The notion of habitus used here is closest to the value attenuation/procedural injustice
approach to urban youths’ distrust of police (see Carr, Napolitano, and Keating 2007). However,
the concept of habitus can act as a bridge between subcultural and value attenuation models
because it is a relatively “durable” product of objective conditions which becomes ingrained, but
maintains flexibility and adaptive capacity.
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