Understanding the Link Between Discrimination and Juvenile Delinquency Among Chinese Migrant Children

Published date01 May 2018
Date01 May 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2018, Vol. 34(2) 128 –147
© The Author(s) 2018
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986218761959
Understanding the Link
Between Discrimination and
Juvenile Delinquency Among
Chinese Migrant Children
Spencer D. Li1 and Yiwei Xia1
Prior research has identified discrimination as a cause of delinquency among migrant
children. Few studies, however, have examined how discrimination is related to
delinquency. The current research aims at bringing more understanding to this issue.
Based on the general strain theory, this study posits that discrimination facilitates
delinquent behavior because it reduces social support, generates negative emotions,
and erodes social bonds. To test these hypotheses, this study collected survey
data from a probability sample of 1,300 migrant children who attended secondary
schools in one of the largest cities in China. Structural equation modeling analysis was
conducted to test the direct and indirect effects of discrimination on delinquency.
The results show that perceived discrimination reported by the students was
positively related to delinquency through all three mediating mechanisms. This study
suggests that strengthening social support may provide an effective strategy to reduce
delinquency among migrant children in a short and intermediate term while ending
discrimination represents a more long-term solution.
Chinese migrant children, migration, discrimination, delinquency, general strain
Research on crime committed by migrant population can be traced back to the last
century (Hart, 1896). Existing literature mostly indicates that migrant population have
a higher rate of criminal involvement than nonmigrant population. This pattern has
1University of Macau, Taipa, Macau, China
Corresponding Author:
Spencer D. Li, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Macau, Avenida da Universidade, Taipa, Macau,
Email: spencerli@umac.mo
761959CCJXXX10.1177/1043986218761959Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeLi and Xia
Li and Xia 129
been found in the United States (Mears, 2002), Europe (Simon & Sikich, 2007),
Western Asia (Walsh, Fogel-Grinvald, & Shneider, 2015), and other regions and areas
(Larsen, 2010; Schloenhardt, 2001). Unlike children of immigrants who sometimes
demonstrated better developmental outcomes than children with native-born parents
in receiving countries, children of internal migrants who leave home to work in another
part of their country, typically urban areas with more employment opportunities, are at
higher risk for delinquent involvement and related problems than their peers who grew
up in the local communities (Cheung, 2013; Tong & Piotrowski, 2012). Two major
structural forces have been identified as explanations of the underlying mechanisms:
First, migrants face more challenges in life than nonmigrants. In addition to the com-
mon adversities shared by both groups, migrants are more likely to experience dis-
crimination and suffer from blocked opportunities and related stresses (Hällsten,
Szulkin, & Sarnecki, 2013). Second, migrants are more likely to live in socially and
ethnically segregated and disorganized communities, which provide “greater exposure
to risk factors than protective factors” (Peterson & Krivo, 2005, p. 345).
Compared with their parents, the second generation of migrants is generally con-
fronted with more social and emotional stressors (Birman & Poff, 2011). Discriminations
on the basis of language, ethnicity, and family background are major disadvantages
facing the younger generation (Deng, Kim, Vaughan, & Li, 2009; Walsh et al., 2015).
Moreover, migrant children experience stronger emotional stress, mainly because they
do not receive the help they need, especially from their parents (Wong, Chang, & He,
2009; Yu, Stewart, Liu, & Lam, 2014). Recent studies also reveal other negative con-
sequences of discrimination such as weakened social bond (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001).
All these disadvantages might directly or indirectly lead to a variety of delinquent
behaviors, including violence (Caldwell, Kohn-Wood, Schmeelk-Cone, Chavous, &
Zimmerman, 2004), substance abuse (Gibbons, Gerrard, Cleveland, Wills, & Brody,
2004), and status offenses (Ewert, 2009).
With more than 20 million of school-aged children migrating from rural to urban
areas (Wong et al., 2009), China has experienced huge social and economic impact
caused by migrant children. Studies have found that migrant children are dispropor-
tionately represented in the criminal justice system such as the juvenile correctional
facilities. Ying and Dun (2007), for example, found that more than 50% of the juvenile
offenders in several major cities in China are children of migrants from other prov-
inces. Similar statistics are found in other studies (Chen & Zhong, 2012; C. Liu, 2013).
Researchers have presented divergent views on the reliability of the statistics. Most of
them hold that the statistics reflect the fact that migrant workers and their children
have higher risk for crime and delinquency, perpetuated by social exclusion and other
disadvantages experienced in their lives (Z. Wang, 2002; Zhong, Xu, & Piquero,
2017). Others maintain that the numbers, especially those from the official sources, are
artificially inflated because of widespread policies and practices specifically targeting
rural-to-urban migrants, resulting in higher likelihood of arrest and incarceration
among the migrant population (Trevaskes, 2010; J. Xu, 2013).
Although some studies have found links among discrimination, negative emotions,
lack of social bond, and delinquent behavior among migrant children, the mechanisms

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