Police are often disliked, but in China it’s not the police but another government law enforcement group that takes the heat, the Chengguan. They have the reputation of being brutal and corrupt.
The Chengguan are the enforcement side of city administration, meaning they make sure vendors have the right permits, restaurants follow sanitation and fire codes, builders have the proper permits, that kind of stuff.
The Chengguan are probably best known, for chasing down street vendors. A not uncommon street scene in China starts when someone yells “chengguan, chengguan” and vendors go scrambling, closely followed by a van of uniformed men. The unlucky that get caught face loosing their merchandise and hefty fines.
The flip side is that most of the time street vendors are basically tolerated by the Chengguan. The implication is that it’s only when they’re spoiling for a fight, or maybe when protection payments are due, that vendors get punished. The unsurprising public opinion: the chengguan are thugs harassing poor people out of their livelihood.
But it’s not just that. They’re also known for brutality. In 2008 when some villagers opposed the relocation of landfills in their area, one protester was beaten to death by the Chengguan for not turning over cell phone pictures. There are also several other public instances of beating deaths and brutality.
The Chengguan’s reputation was in no way helped by the internet circulation of an alleged copy of a Chengguan training handbook in 2009. The line, “In dealing with the subject, take care to leave no blood on the face, no wounds on the body, and no people in the vicinity…” was particularly inflammatory.
It’s not surprising then that some people are fighting back. In one instance a crowd came to the support of some street vendors, beating up a few Chengguan officers. Earlier this year, a street vendor who was sentenced to death for killing two Chengguan officials over a permit dispute received significant public sympathy on the internet.
The Chengguan themselves are not blind to this perception, deserved or not, and a few of them have been trying to recoup their image. A group of Chengguan made a public appeal to the government to improve their working standards. Then there is this internet video, probably more effective with the public, of a group of Chengguan doing a coordinated Michael Jackson-esque dance.