Anger increases across China over abuse of street vendors

BEIJING — In a country infamous for heavy-handed officials, the government employees who harass and sometimes beat and extort money from street vendors are among the most despised.

Their official name is ‘‘cheng­guan’’ — literally city management — but the word has become slang for someone who uses excessive force to solve life’s problems.

In recent weeks, anger against them has reached a fever pitch after several cases of apparent abuses have spread widely on Chinese microblogs, sparking a flood of online comments.


In one video, witnesses say chengguan officers beat up a blind man, who is shown sitting in a pool of water, then took his cane, begging cup, and the change inside.

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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. Inflamed by perceptions of abusive authorities, almost all have been driven by discontent among migrant workers and others who have been left behind by China’s economic boom.

While the government seems keenly aware of the anger — acknowledging it in speeches, policies, and training for new officials — it has also appeared 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.


Chengguans were created in 1997 as a low-level urban security force separate from police that enforced 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 and a philosophy among its leaders of preserving stability above all else.

In Beijing alone, the number of city enforcers has 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 their abuses because they often hawk their wares illegally without a permit and don’t have any residency rights 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 such abuses of power have already triggered riots and risk provoking even greater public outcry against the government in the future.

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.’’