On a typical day, few of the hundreds of thousands of people who flow past the Liujiayao Bridge in southern Beijing pay any attention to Su Lianzhi. But on March 23, the 53-year-old fruit vendor became the cause of thousands of passing commuters. Around 11 a.m., 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 during which at least a beating by chengguan officers isn't reported in some Chinese city. (See pictures of life on the fringes of society in China.)
In recent weeks, chengguan officers have been accused of many violations. In southeastern Jiangxi province, local residents say bureau officers beat to death a farmer 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 Xi'an, 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 manual that instructed officers on 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" is an appeal not to bully or terrorize. In other words, chengguan has literally become synonymous with violence. (Read "Tiananmen Ghosts: The Secret Memoir of a Fallen Chinese Leader.")
The reaction of passersby who witnessed the Beijing raid in March gives an indication of the suspicion with which the 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 of beating a defenseless old woman," says Yuan. It was only around 6 p.m., 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 its methods were not used. 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 the 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.
The new urgency has sparked calls for reform. He Bing, a professor at the China University of Politics and Law in Beijing, suggests that the current system be scrapped. The academic believes that peddlers should be given more flexibility to sell their goods and that the chengguan should concentrate on more pressing urban issues. "Street vendors are an important part of the market economy and directly contribute to the GDP," says He. "There are also other merits cheap street markets cater to low-income families, add color to city life, utilize public space and create jobs."
It's precisely because the Chinese bureaucracy's idea of an ideal city doesn't include peddlers and street vendors that the chengguan developed into such a powerful institution. One need only look at Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, when most temporary food stalls, pedicabs, illegal taxis and beggars were banished, to get a sense of how China wants its cities to appear. "Some government officials are oblivious to reality, and aim to build a vendorless city as their political achievement," He says.
Originally, such issues were handled by the danwei, the work units to which Chinese employees were once closely bound, says Zhou Hanhua, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The danwei supervised workers' lives down to marriage and childbirth, and prevented people from engaging in unregulated enterprises on the side. The decline of China's state-owned enterprises in the 1990s precipitated the breakdown of the danwei system. At the same time the country grew increasingly urbanized, and millions of migrant workers poured into big cities. "The traditional system could no longer manage," Zhou says. "The chengguan were established to handle the problems of the urban environment."
The chengguan ended up with enforcement powers for a broad range of regulations in Chinese cities. Officers were often drawn from the ranks of laid-off workers from state-owned enterprises and given little training in law enforcement, Zhou says. While Chinese police have also been accused of abusing suspects the government recently ordered police to undergo a five-month retraining program because of an alarming number of high-profile deaths of prisoners in the nation's jails the violence attributed to the chengguan is seen as more galling because of the pedestrian nature of their responsibilities. Yet they themselves face threats too. "Street vendors are also using violence to fight against chengguan," He says. "Some have even formed mafia-like societies." On April 8 a city-management officer in the southern city of Shenzhen was stabbed to death by a vendor from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. Witnesses told reporters that the chengguan officer and a partner had smashed a spicy-skewers stand where the man worked.
But in many cases the chengguan act with impunity, and anyone who tries to intervene does so at great risk. In January 2008, a construction-company manager in the town of Tianmen in the central province of Hubei came upon a group of bureau officers. They were shutting down a small protest against a garbage dump planned for the area. When the construction boss, Wei Wenhua, began filming the clash between the chengguan and protestors, the city-management officers turned on Wei and beat him to death. On the Chinese Internet there were widespread calls for the officers to be harshly punished and the system reformed. For a while, it seemed like there was hope. A group of more than 100 chengguan leaders called for "deep concern and reflection."
In the end, Wei's killers were handed sentences ranging from three to six years in prison. Wei's widow, Zeng Jingfang, calls the verdicts an injustice. And she notes that even after her husband's death, little has changed. "Similar cases of chengguan violence continue to happen," she says. The "deep concern and reflection" only led back to the sanguinary status quo. But as the economic slowdown puts further pressure on the chengguan, China's city-management officers may finally be forced to manage themselves.
with reporting by Lin Yang / Beijing