By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
July 7, 2011
Reporting from Beijing
It's no mystery why the Chinese hate the chengguan. Think of them as thuggish meter maids or health inspectors with batons. Hardly a week goes by without a new controversy involving the municipal officers, a rung below the police, beating an unlicensed hawker or smashing a street vendor's stand.
Their latest handiwork? A fiery three-day riot last month involving thousands in the southern township of Xintang that was sparked when chengguan reportedly beat a pregnant roadside stall owner.
Other victims have included a watermelon peddler who was paralyzed and a construction company boss who was killed after he dared to film the chengguan trying to stop a protest.
To many, the officers embody all that is wrong with authority figures in China: impunity, abuse of power and disproportionate targeting of the poor. It's why a kebab cart owner who stabbed two chengguan to death in 2009 after they attacked him was largely heralded online as a vigilante hero.
But in what might be one of toughest sells of the century in China, some are arguing that the chengguan are unfairly demonized and deserving of a little empathy. An essay spreading on Internet forums and purportedly written by an anonymous chengguan says his profession has been scorned to the point that he can't carry out his work.
"Our job is to deal with society's most vulnerable citizens and squeeze them further; conflict is inevitable," writes the author, who says he earns $185 a month, about the same as a construction worker. But "the vulnerable are not necessarily innocent. The sympathy these illegal vendors get has, to some extent, made the vulnerable privileged while we chengguan have become the humblest of the humble."
Among the indignities was watching a colleague getting kicked in the groin by a shopkeeper, having a vendor pretend to lay dead on the ground while his son threatened to post a video, and riding to work in a rickety $300 minivan pulled from the scrap heap.
China Labour Bulletin, a nongovernmental organization based in Hong Kong that is known for its support of factory workers and laborers, issued a translation of the essay and a commentary Monday, reasoning that there would be less conflict if chengguan were better trained and paid. Though the essay could not be verified, the organization noted that its details were consistent with past reports.
"Chengguan have a uniform but no real power," China Labour Bulletin said. "They are supposed to enforce about 300 legal articles and regulations, but are given no specific instruction on how to enforce them. The only sanctions they have are fines and confiscations. However, these are precisely the penalties that are most likely to trigger a violent confrontation because, for impoverished street vendors, a fine or confiscation of their property means a loss of income and in many cases is a direct threat to their livelihood."
In some cases, the chengguan are themselves the target of violence and retribution. Last week near the city of Wuhan, a chengguan supervisor was bloodied with batons by private security guards after he and fellow officers tried to confiscate chairs and tables blocking traffic.
And chengguan in the factory town of Shenzhen were issued armored vests after a colleague was fatally stabbed by a peddler in April.
Aware of their bad PR, many departments have tried image makeovers by hiring more female officers. Others have opened micro-blog accounts to appear more accessible. And to avoid scuffles, officers in Wuhan resorted to surrounding illegal hawkers and staring at them until they packed up and left (a far less controversial tactic than the directive to "leave no blood on the face, no wounds on the body, and no people in the vicinity, when dealing with suspects" that was advocated in a chengguan training manual that surfaced in 2009).
The chengguan have faced a difficult task ever since they were established more than a decade ago to streamline the role played by myriad departments in enforcing municipal codes on ever more crowded streets.
Unpermitted vendors, the primary target of the chengguan, have been omnipresent in China since migrant workers began pouring into cities. Residents turn to the hawkers for quick meals and cheap goods, and the vendors rely on the meager earnings to scratch out a living.
In most cases, the chengguan don't appear to invoke their ability to fine and confiscate wares. Instead, most brushes play out like routine games of cat and mouse, with the feline appearing barely enthused.
Such was the case on a recent afternoon in southwest Beijing, where clothing vendors were interrupted by shouts of "Chengguan! Chengguan!" Within seconds, many had packed up their merchandise and fled. One of them wasn't fast enough and was still there when a lanky officer surnamed Yan showed up and patted her on the shoulder.
"It's better you go home early and hang out with your family," he said.
The vendor thanked him and peddled away.
Asked why he let her go, Yan said, "I'm also human. It's hot and most of these people have to do this" to make a living.
As for the merits of his profession, Yan said, "This is not an easy job. I won't let my son take the same job when he grows up."
Nicole Liu and Jonathan Kaiman in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times