Taiwan is cheered by locals and foreign residents alike for its safe living environment. Violent crime is relatively rare. It’s even fine to take a walk in downtown Taipei’s largest green space – Daan Forest Park – at any hour of the evening.
Yet two gruesome incidents in the past two years have chipped away at Taiwan’s halcyon image. First, a 21-year-old male student stabbed four people to death and injured 24 others on a crowded Taipei subway train on May 21, 2014. Then on March 28 this year, a 33-year-old unemployed man beheaded a four-year-old girl with a cleaver on a street in Taipei’s Neihu District.
The perpetrator of the subway killings, Chang Chieh, told police he had been planning the crime since childhood. Reports in the media revealed Chang had made death threats to his elementary school classmates and had carried a knife with him for a month during junior high school, looking for a chance to stab a teacher.
Wang Ching-yu, the killer of the toddler in Neihu, does not have a history of violent behavior. However, a March 29 report by Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) said police had found evidence of Wang’s mental illness in his paper notebooks. The CNA report also cited a statement by Wang’s father that his son had shown signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Sensationalist media reports and rapid-fire outbursts on Taiwan’s social media followed both of these murder cases, as pundits and netizens alike lamented the decline of the nation’s public safety.
Violent crime decreasing
The incidents were admittedly horrific. But overall violent crime has decreased steadily in Taiwan over the past decade. Susyan Jou, a professor at National Taipei University’s Graduate School of Criminology, notes that recorded violent crime cases decreased from 14,000 in 2005 to 2,300 in 2014. National surveys conducted in 2010 and 2015 also showed that the probability of personal victimization for theft had dropped from 10% to 6%, for robbery from 0.46% to 0.17% and for assault from 0.59% to 0.4%. “There is no evidence from official police records or survey-based victimization data to indicate a rise in violent or property crime in Taiwan,” Jou says.
“The police have been very effective in reducing violent crime in Taiwan in the past 10 years,” says Huang Tsung-Jen, deputy director-general of the National Police Agency (NPA) under the Ministry of the Interior. “The reason people sometimes feel Taiwan is less safe is that media coverage of certain incidents is sensational. It can give people an impression that Taiwan is dangerous.”
Jou says that in 70% of the violent crimes, the offenders and the victims are acquainted. She also points out that most offenders do not suffer from mental disorders, and that a significant portion of schizophrenia patients are suicidal. “Patients with mental disorders are more likely to be victims than offenders,” she says, adding that those who are schizophrenic, have an anti-social personality disorder, or abuse substances are most likely “to be linked to violence – but this is correlational, not a causal effect.
Sam Reynolds, a Canadian copywriter for a Taiwanese technology firm and a resident of Taipei since 2013, says the high-profile murder cases of the past two years have not affected his overall impression of the city. “Taipei’s streets are orderly and clean,” he says. “The culture here doesn’t have the same tolerance for drug use or other extreme anti-social behaviors as in the West, and that helps to make the city extremely safe, day or night.”