BEIJING – In a country infamous for heavy-handed officials, the government employees who harass and sometimes beat and extort money from street vendors are among the most despised.
Their official name is “chengguan” — literally, “city management” — but the word has become slang for someone who uses excessive force to solve life’s problems.
In recent weeks, anger against them has reached fever pitch after several cases of apparent abuses have spread widely on Chinese microblogs, sparking a flood of online comments.
In one video last week, witnesses say chengguan officers beat up a blind man, who is shown sitting in a pool of water, then took his cane, begging cup and the change inside.
In another recent case, photos posted online show a swarm of officers roughing up and handcuffing a fruit vendor as her 2-year-old daughter cries inconsolably in the background.
Each month brings news of another “mass incident” — the government’s name for large-scale protests, which seem to be growing more intense. Inflamed by perceptions of abusive authorities, almost all have been driven by discontent among migrant workers and others who have been left behind by China’s economic boom.
While the government seems keenly aware of the anger — acknowledging it in speeches, policies and training for new officials — it has also appeared hesitant to scale back its use of chengguan officers in particular or their tactics, seeing them as a grassroots-level bulwark for its massive security apparatus.
Chengguans were created in 1997 as a low-level urban security force separate from police that enforced noncriminal administrative concerns such as noise control, parking and sanitation.
Since then, their numbers have exploded, matching an overall increase in China’s domestic security and a philosophy among its leaders of preserving stability above all else.
In Beijing alone, the number of city enforcers jumped from 100 in 1997 to more than 7,000 permanent officers and 6,500 temporary ones in 2011.
Migrant workers, who make up the bulk of the millions of street vendors in China, are particularly vulnerable to their abuses because they often hawk their wares without the required permit and do not have any residency rights in the bigger cities they flock to in search of work.
“We have no choice,” said Li Shengyan, 22, the fruit vendor whose detention along with her 2-year-old daughter last month sparked much outrage. “They are no different than bandits. . . . Why don’t they use their efforts to catch real criminals or robbers instead of people trying to earn enough for bread?”
In a 76-page report last year documenting more than two dozen cases, Human Rights Watch noted such abuses of power have already triggered riots and risk provoking even greater public outcry against the government in the future.
The report noted that the abuse at times seems officially condoned, citing what appears to be a Beijing training manual that warns chengguan officers to “leave no blood on the face, no wounds on the body and no (witnesses) in the vicinity.”
Unlike police, the city enforcers have no legal authority to detain vendors, but often do anyway. Vendors say harassment and beatings are common. Many vendors also report having their goods confiscated and returned only if they pay a seemingly arbitrary price, leading to widespread accusations of corruption.
The incident involving the fruit vendor, for instance, began when authorities tried to seize her scale and produce. Li admitted she got so angry — assuming she would have to pay a bribe for their return — that she threw a guava at one official, after which, she said, he began choking her.
Some city leaders, aware of the growing anger, have tried to fight back with cosmetic fixes. Last summer, the city of Hefei hired foreigners to join their chengguan ranks, hoping angry vendors would be nicer and more accommodating to strange-looking men from South Africa, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan. The year before, another city, Chengdu, tried creating an eye-pleasing female chengguan unit that enforced laws on roller skates.
Anger, however, only seems to be increasing, with several recent confrontations resulting in violence. In Hubei Province, a city enforcer died March 16 after angry workers hit him with a hoe at the site where he was trying to enforce city codes.
In Guangzhou a few days earlier, a city enforcer was stabbed by a pineapple vendor. In a sentiment widely shared by chengguan these days, his partner at the scene was quoted in local media decrying the fact that “my colleague was stabbed and bleeding and yet no one around us tried to help. . . . People were just aloof.”