This month the tragic story of a watermelon vendor’s death in rural China made its rounds online, triggering widespread anger amongst Chinese netizens. Deng Zhengjia, a 56-year-old farmer, arrived with his wife Huang Xixi on July 17 in Chenzhou City, Linwu County in China’s southern Hunan province, to sell the homegrown fruits of their hard labor.
A few hours after the Dengs set up shop, a group of local law enforcers known as the chengguan – an “urban management” corps, akin to an unarmed police force – confiscated four watermelons and asked the couple to move to a designated area for vendors, which they did. The story unfortunately did not end there. When the local enforcers returned, conflict ensued that ended with Zhengjia’s death and his wife suffering a head injury for which she was hospitalized.
As far as Huang could recall, the conflict started when the chengguan refused to give the couple an invoice after paying a fine of 100 RMB ($16.29) for initially peddling fruit outside the designated area. “You are bandits,” she told the officers, who knocked her unconscious. By the time she awoke her husband was dead.
Although Deng’s niece and other witnesses claimed she watched as chengguan officers beat her uncle in the head with an iron weight from a set of scales. Authorities claimed, however, that Deng “suddenly collapsed and died”. After “investigating”, local officials declared the chengguan officers on the scene were innocent.
When infuriated locals in Deng’s hometown gathered for a late-night protest, authorities cut the power to all street lights – perhaps to prevent people from recording the event on video or film, notes Anthony Tao of Beijing Cream.
But the story could not be hidden from the nation’s network of 400 million Sina Weibo microbloggers. The story was in fact broken by a Weibo user who posted photos of the grisly scene and stated as a matter of fact that Deng had indeed been beaten to death. As the story went viral, Chinese netizens criticized the much maligned chengguan in no uncertain terms. Some even likened his death to that of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation ignited the Arab Spring.
As translated by Yuxin Gao in The Telegraph, Prominent blogger Li Chengpeng wrote: “He [Deng Zhengjia] wanted to grow sweet watermelons, have a magnificent harvest, and sell his watermelons quickly, so that he could get home in time for dinner. This was his Chinese dream…Why didn’t you [authorities] take care of him? Before we sit down to talk about the Chinese dream, you should protect a watermelon vendor’s dream.”
Li’s essay, from which this excerpt came, was shared on Weibo more than 197,000 times. Li was reportedly asked to keep quiet on Weibo for a month following the post.
Sadly, Deng’s death was not an isolated incident. Human Rights Watch reported some 150 instances of violence between 2010 and 2012 involving the chengguan in some form. Less than a week prior to Deng’s death, chengguan officers in the southern city of Kunming tipped over a street vendor’s food cart, spilling his goods across the pavement, before proceeding to assault and injure around a dozen bystanders who were taking photos and video of the showdown. The overturned food cart can be seen here.
As The Atlantic notes, the chengguan is a particularly Chinese phenomenon. These officers oversee a hazy domain of law enforcement involving issues that are largely the byproducts of China’s rural-to-urban mass migration that has made the nation’s economic reality so topsy-turvy over the past three decades. As Chinese cities fill to the point of bursting, illegal street peddlers, migrant laborers, and apartment squatters have flourished.
This puts the chengguan in the unenviable position of cracking down on these people who are by and large just trying to eke out a living – so goes the line of defense usually taken by the government and China’s state-run media following incidents like Deng’s death. This tack could be seen most recently in an op-ed published in the Global Times titled “Condemn violence, not chengguan system”.
Indeed, chengguan have been on the defense for years. In 2010, I met and spoke with Bao Guoxiang, head of a chengguan department in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area. With Bao at the helm, the chengguan in his district was experimenting with a novel approach, dispatching female-only squads of officers to soften the image and smooth relations with the community.
“We want to connect more with the community and listen to what residents need,” Bao had said.
Speaking of the all-female squad, he added, “These women are making a great contribution towards changing our image in the community. They have a special knack for using soft power to convince peddlers to pack up and go.”
From what I could tell, the effort was sincere and there was in fact an all-female squad patrolling the streets of at least one corner of Shanghai. But China is massive. So small efforts like Bao’s – even if they are closer to being PR stunts than genuine steps towards change – barely cause a ripple in the surface of an ocean of public resentment. As China’s cities continue to swell, this problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon.