China’s Thuggish Para-Police
Image Credit: Ivan Walsh

China’s Thuggish Para-Police


The arrival in the United States this past Saturday of the Chinese human rights defender Chen Guangcheng gives him at least temporary respite from the years of unlawful abuse he suffered at the hands of government officials and security forces. But his case is a reminder of the wider impunity enjoyed by thuggish elements of China’s security forces and their many anonymous victims.

Take the experience of “Wang Ren,” for example.

One October morning in 2010, four Beijing “Urban Management” officers, or chengguan (城管), stopped their car next to where Wang, a 32-year-old migrant from Henan Province, was selling grapes. Three officers climbed on her cart and without explanation began confiscating her stock. When Wang protested, they began kicking and cursing her. They then threw her from her cart into the road. Only then did the fourth chengguan officer, who had stood by silently during the attack, intervene. Wang lost her grapes and was left with deep bruises.

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Welcome to street policing, chengguan-style.

Street vending in many Chinese cities has become a risky business due to the chengguan Urban Management Law Enforcement, (城管执法) a para-police organization to enforce non-criminal administrative regulations.

Human Right Watch interviewed victims and witnesses to attacks by the chengguan and found that in some circumstances, chengguan enforcement of those regulations, which range from traffic rules to environmental and city beautification ordinances, has made the agency a threat to, rather than a guarantor of, public safety. The absence of effective official supervision, training, and discipline has contributed to assaults on suspected administrative law violators leading to serious injury or death, illegal detention, and unlawful confiscation of property.

Our findings are consistent with widely held public sentiment in China about the chengguan. A Google search for Chinese-language references to chengguan produces literally millions of entries for “chengguan beat people” (城管打人). In October 2010, a video game in which a player taking the role of a street vendor had to defeat waves of attacks by chengguan became popular across China. Chinese state media reported 162 violent incidents involving chengguan from July 2010 to March 2012.

The chengguan have grown from humble roots to become a symbol of abuse of power and impunity. The agency began in 1997 as a neighborhood experiment in street level administrative enforcement with 100 chengguan personnel in Beijing’s Xuanwu district. That trial reflected government fears about the potential impact on social stability of the huge numbers of rural migrants entering China’s cities in search of work at a time when ailing state-owned firms were shedding large numbers of workers. By the end of 2005, 308 cities had formed chengguan units, and by July 2010, Beijing alone had 6,200 chengguan personnel.

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