China's 'para-police' brutality under scrutiny

Local governments across China hire unregulated goons to clear sidewalks and enforce other city codes.

Relatives grieve as they hold a picture of 56-year-old farmer Deng Zhengjia during a funeral in Linwu county, Hunan province July 19, 2013. The body of the watermelon vendor Deng who died in a violent clash with urban management officers in central China's Hunan Province was buried Friday evening after an autopsy.

One moment, passers-by were browsing through the trinkets laid out for sale on the sidewalk – bracelets, hair-bands, 3-D spectacles. The next instant, the goods were whisked from under the shoppers’ noses and stuffed into bags; the vendors melted away.

The reason for their disappearing act?  The approach of a white van emblazoned with the logo of China’s widely feared “Urban Management Law Enforcement,” the chengguan. As the van drew up to the now empty sidewalk, uniformed officers looked out of its windows at the unlicensed vendors scurrying away. They did not bother to get out; their arrival was enough.

That peaceable ritual on a Beijing street Monday marked one end of the spectrum of law enforcement here. Last week, at the other end, chengguan in the southern province of Hunan beat an unlicensed watermelon seller to death, sparking a nationwide outcry and renewed calls for reform of the unregulated para-police force that has become a byword for brutality.

“Changes are needed,” says Huang Shiding, director of the Urban Management Research Institute in Guangdong. “The chengguan run into many problems because the legal boundaries of their behavior are not clear.”

Chengguan, hired and organized locally by city governments across China, are tasked with enforcing urban administrative regulations – keeping the sidewalks clear, imposing sanitation rules, and so on.

That often brings them into conflict with the armies of hawkers – selling everything from fruit and bootlegged DVDs to clothes and freshly cooked snacks – who enliven China’s city streets but who do not have a license to engage in commerce. And the conflicts often turn ugly.

The Chinese Internet is awash with citizen-shot videos of chengguan assaulting vendors – in two particularly shocking incidents documented recently online, chengguan repeatedly stamped on one hawker’s head and kicked a middle-aged woman until she passed out.

Last Wednesday, chengguan in the county of Linwu attacked Deng Zhengjia, a farmer who had come to town to sell his watermelons, and beat him to death with his own measure weights, according to witnesses. 

It was the sort of incident that has made the chengguan “synonymous for many Chinese citizens with physical violence, illegal detention, and theft,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, when the watchdog group released a highly critical report on the chengguan last year.

Some blame the violence on the chengguan’s lack of power – they cannot detain anyone, for example. “The chengguan have a very difficult job … and their authority is limited so they resort to violence,” explained an op-ed in Monday’s edition of the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official mouthpiece.

Independent observers such as Mr. Huang, however, say the para-police force has “an institutional problem” with violence because “there is no law or regulation specifying what methods they can use.”

To make matters worse, he says, most chengguan officers are “uneducated, unemployed young men” who often behave like thugs and whose only concern is to satisfy the municipal governments that hire them and assign them their tasks.

Besides training the officers better, suggests Huang, the government should introduce “national legislation to regulate the chengguan’s behavior.”

And at the same time, he adds, the authorities might relax their notion of what makes a livable city. “Harsh controls do not work,” says Huang. “Not everything necessarily has to be kept in perfect order.”

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