In recent weeks, anger against the officials has reached a fever pitch as several cases of apparent abuse have been widely reported in Chinese microblogs, sparking a flood of online comments.
In a video posted online last week, witnesses say chengguan officers beat up a blind man, shown sitting in a pool of water, then took his cane, his begging cup and the change inside.
In another recent case, photos posted online show a swarm of officers roughing up and handcuffing a fruit vendor as her 2-year-old daughter cries inconsolably in the background.
Because of such accounts, chengguan officers have become, in many ways, the face of the government’s authoritarian rule — especially among China’s hundreds of millions of lower-class migrant workers, who are increasingly expressing their anger and disillusionment with protests and violence.
Each month brings news of another “mass incident” — the government’s name for large-scale protests, which seem to be growing more intense. Almost all have been inflamed by frustration over authorities’ broad abuse of power and driven by discontent among migrant workers and others who have been left behind by China’s economic boom
Although the government appears keenly aware of the anger — acknowledging it in speeches, policies and training programs for new officials — it has also seemed hesitant to scale back its use of chengguan officers in particular or their tactics, seeing them as a grass-roots-level bulwark for its massive security apparatus.
‘They are . . . bandits’
Chengguans were created in 1997 as a low-level urban security force separate from police that dealt with noncriminal administrative concerns such as noise control, parking and sanitation.
Since then, their numbers have exploded, matching an overall increase in China’s domestic security forces and a philosophy among its leaders of preserving stability above all else.
In Beijing alone, the number of city enforcers jumped from 100 in 1997 to more than 7,000 permanent officers and 6,500 temporary ones in 2011.
Migrant workers, who make up the bulk of the millions of street vendors in China, are particularly vulnerable to abuse by authorities because they often hawk their wares without permit and face residency restrictions in the bigger cities they flock to in search of work.
“We have no choice,” said Li Shengyan, 22, the fruit vendor whose detention along with her 2-year-old daughter this month sparked much outrage. “They are no different than bandits. . . . Why don’t they use their efforts to catch real criminals or robbers instead of people trying to earn enough for bread?”
In a 76-page report last year documenting more than two dozen cases, Human Rights Watch noted that such abuses of power have triggered riots and risk provoking even greater public outcry against the government.
The report noted that the abuse at times seems officially condoned, citing what appears to be a Beijing training manual that warns chengguan officers to “leave no blood on the face, no wounds on the body and no [witnesses] in the vicinity.”
Unlike police, the city enforcers have no legal authority to detain vendors, but they often do so anyway. Vendors say harassment and beatings are common. Many vendors also report having their goods confiscated and returned only if they pay a seemingly arbitrary price, leading to widespread accusations of corruption.
The incident involving the fruit vendor, for instance, began when authorities tried to seize her scale and produce. Li admitted that she got so angry — assuming that she would have to pay a bribe to recover her items — that she threw a guava at one official. After that, she said, he began choking her. The local government has since suspended the officer, but it has accused Li of instigating the violence.
Some city leaders, aware of the growing anger, have tried to fight back with cosmetic fixes. In the summer, the city of Hefei hired foreigners to join their chengguan ranks, hoping angry vendors would be nicer and more accommodating to different-looking men from South Africa, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan. The year before, another city, Chengdu, tried creating an eye-pleasing female chengguan unit that enforced laws on roller skates.
Anger, however, only seems to be increasing, with several recent confrontations resulting in violence. In Hubei province, a city enforcer died March 16 after irate workers hit him with a hoe at a site where he was trying to enforce city codes.
In Guangzhou a few days earlier, a city enforcer was stabbed by a pineapple vendor. In a sentiment widely shared by chengguan these days, his partner at the scene was quoted in local media decrying that “my colleague was stabbed and bleeding and yet no one around us tried to help. . . . People were just aloof.”
Zhang Jie contributed to this report.