Chengguan: China’s unloved workers plead for understanding

04 July 2011
Chengguan (城管), the low-level law-enforcement officers tasked with keeping order on city streets, are probably the most reviled group of workers in China today. They are widely seen by the public as bullies and thugs with a license to harass, threaten and beat-up the poor and oppressed, those who came to the city to earn an honest living by selling goods on the street.

Indeed, when two chengguan were stabbed to death and another severely injured in a knife attack by a street vendor three years ago, the vast majority of online commentators sided with the murderer. It was assumed that the street vendor, Xia Junfeng, had been provoked by the chengguan and was acting out of self-defence. Xia was eventually sentenced to death, provoking further outrage from netizens who noted that in all the documented cases of chengguan beating street vendors to death, not one had been given the death sentence.

But now, many chengguan have had enough of the abuse they are subjected to on the streets and the demonization they have to endure on the internet. One chengguan posted a commentary last week entitled Enough already! Try doing my job for a week and then criticize me, which outlines the poor pay (1,200 yuan a month) and working conditions chengguan have to put up with, and the impossible demands they are expected to meet. He pleads for understanding, and makes the point that chengguan are now more likely to be the victim rather than the perpetrator of violence.

While it is impossible to verify the veracity of the article, it is backed up by several other reports which show that many chengguan are very poorly paid, overworked and often subject to verbal and sometimes violent attack. In the Henan city of Jiyuan, for example, the low pay and pressures of the job got so bad that, in the summer of 2009, more than 20 chengguan gathered in front of the city government building to demand a pay raise. Their salary at that time, they claimed, was lower than a waiter in a city restaurant. Another chengguan in Hubei posted an article last year in which he claimed that after more than a decade in the job he could still only earn 1,532 yuan a month, with overtime paid at half the statutory rate. Even family members sometimes suffer abuse. A ten-year-old boy in the central city of Wuhan, for example, suffered taunts and bullying at school simply because his father was employed as a chengguan.

Very often, chengguan are put in an impossible situation. They are expected by the government, urban residents and especially licensed store owners to clear-away unlicensed street vendors but if they use any kind of force they are immediately criticised by their bosses and lambasted in the media. Chengguan have a uniform but no real power. 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.

A few years ago, a so-called training manual for chengguan was published by the Beijing City Administration Bureau. The Practice of City Administrator Law Enforcement quickly gained notoriety because it specifically instructed chengguan to “leave no blood on the face, no wounds on the body, and no people in the vicinity, when dealing with suspects.” In reality however, most chengguan have never seen the manual and have received little or no formal training from the local government.

Moreover, many of those who are generally assumed to be chengguan are not even employed by the city government but rather by local business owners, as was the case in the southern city of Zengcheng last month when a pregnant migrant woman was knocked to the ground by security guards employed by the supermarket she had set her stall up in front of. The incident led to three days of rioting in the city and most people simply assumed that the culprits were chengguan. And just last week, chengguan in the central city of Huangshi were attacked by a group of private security officers when they tried to stop a shop owner recruiting on the street. The chengguan reportedly did not fight back and were subjected to a 20-minute beating during which one of them had his arm broken.

The easiest solution to the violence perpetrated by and endured by chengguan would be to disband the institution entirely and make the local police responsible for law and order on city streets. Chengguan have, after all, only been around for a little over a decade and it is not too late to say it is an experiment that has failed. This however would lead to tens of thousands of workers being laid-off, many of whom would probably just drift into jobs with private security firms that are even less accountable to the public.

A better solution, and one now being employed by some cities in the wake of recent highly-publicised violent incidents, is to provide more effective and standardised training for chengguan. In addition, however, the pay and working conditions of chengguan have to be drastically improved if local governments are going to recruit suitably high-calibre employees who can help to repair some of the damage already done to the reputation of China’s unloved workers.
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