On a typical day, few of the hundreds of thousands of people who flow past the Liujiayao Bridge in southern Beijing give any notice to Su Lianzhi. But on March 23, the 53-year-old fruit vendor became the cause of thousands of passing commuters. Around 11AM, as Su and her family were trying to make a few sales, a white van swooped in. At least 10 men jumped out and began confiscating the family’s fruit and three-wheeled cart. “My mother would not let them take the cart,” says Su’s daughter, Yuan Fang. “But the young men were hot-tempered, and they started hitting her.”
Su suffered a concussion and a broken finger. She was taken to the hospital by officers from the local chengguan, or city management bureau. The officers told Su that the men in the van were working for their department, a law-enforcement agency that is responsible for controlling street vendors, hawkers, shoe-shiners and illegal cabs. While they wield less power than the police, they have become notorious for violence. Hardly a week goes by that a savage beating or even killing by chengguan officers isn’t reported in some Chinese city.
In recent weeks chengguan officers have been accused of many violations. In the city of Nanjing, officers reportedly scuffled with university students who were hawking goods on a street, sparking a protest by hundreds of their classmates from the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The demonstration was held just days before the sensitive 20th anniversary of the crackdown on student-led protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Local residents say they beat to death a farmer in southeastern Jiangxi province who was trying to stop a land-reclamation project. His killing sparked a riot, with angry residents overturning chengguan cars on a local highway. In the southern city of Changsha, city management officers allegedly beat a Chinese reporter who was visiting from Beijing to cover a demolition and relocation project. And in the central city of Xian, chengguan who were shutting down a breakfast stall kicked a wok and burned a vendor with scalding oil. In late April a law enforcement officer posted on the Internet parts of a chengguan manual that instructed officers in how to beat suspects without leaving marks, sparking harsh criticism from bloggers and the domestic press. The word “chengguan” has even taken on an alternate meaning in Chinese. “Don’t be too chengguan” means to not bully or terrorize. In other words, chengguan has literally become synonymous with violence.
The reaction of passersby who witnessed the Beijing raid in March gives an indication of the suspicion with which chengguan are held by average citizens. Hundreds of people surrounded the van, shouted at its occupants and even attempted to turn the vehicle over. “Many of them stood up for us, accusing the thugs for beating a defenseless old woman,” says Yuan. It was only around 6PM, seven hours after the clash began, that the crowd allowed the van to escape.
“The notion that ‘chengguan routinely use violence’ is not compatible with the facts,” the Beijing chengguan’s media office wrote in a reply to TIME, adding that in recent years their officers have improved law enforcement and responded to the public’s demands. The media office acknowledged the existence of the controversial manual but said it was not followed. As for Su, the chengguan said she disturbed social order and prevented the officers from carrying out their duties, leading to a 15-day detention.
Conflict between vendors and city management officers has existed for years, but the government has made little progress in reducing it. Now many observers fear that the economic crisis could make the tension even more acute. The central government fears that financial uncertainty could provoke greater social instability, fanning incidents like the Beijing standoff between chengguan and citizens into bigger outbreaks of violence. The slowdown will also force more migrant workers who can’t find steady jobs in factories to make money peddling on the street, provoking further fights with management officers.
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