China's 'para-police' brutality under scrutiny
Local governments across China hire unregulated goons to clear sidewalks and enforce other city codes.
One moment, passers-by were browsing through the trinkets laid out for sale on the sidewalk â€“ bracelets, hair-bands, 3-D spectacles. The next instant, the goods were whisked from under the shoppersâ€™ noses and stuffed into bags; the vendors melted away.
The reason for their disappearing act? Â The approach of a white van emblazoned with the logo of Chinaâ€™s widely feared â€śUrban Management Law Enforcement,â€ť 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.
â€śChanges are needed,â€ť says Huang Shiding, director of the Urban Management Research Institute in Guangdong. â€śThe chengguan run into many problems because the legal boundaries of their behavior are not clear.â€ť
Chengguan, hired and organized locally by city governments across China, are tasked with enforcing urban administrative regulations â€“ keeping the sidewalks clear, imposing sanitation rules, and so on.
That often brings them into conflict with the armies of hawkers â€“ selling everything from fruit and bootlegged DVDs to clothes and freshly cooked snacks â€“ who enliven Chinaâ€™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 â€“ in two particularly shocking incidents documented recently online, chengguan repeatedly stamped on one hawkerâ€™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.Â
It was the sort of incident that has made the chengguan â€śsynonymous for many Chinese citizens with physical violence, illegal detention, and theft,â€ť 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 chengguanâ€™s lack of power â€“ they cannot detain anyone, for example. â€śThe chengguan have a very difficult job â€¦ and their authority is limited so they resort to violence,â€ť explained an op-ed in Mondayâ€™s edition of the Peopleâ€™s Daily, the ruling Communist Partyâ€™s official mouthpiece.
Independent observers such as Mr. Huang, however, say the para-police force has â€śan institutional problemâ€ť with violence because â€śthere is no law or regulation specifying what methods they can use.â€ť
To make matters worse, he says, most chengguan officers are â€śuneducated, unemployed young menâ€ť 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 â€śnational legislation to regulate the chengguanâ€™s behavior.â€ť
And at the same time, he adds, the authorities might relax their notion of what makes a livable city. â€śHarsh controls do not work,â€ť says Huang. â€śNot everything necessarily has to be kept in perfect order.â€ť