May 23, 2012


One October morning in 2010, four Beijing “Urban Management” officers, or chengguan ( 城管 ), stopped their car next to the cart of Wang Ren (not her real name), a 32-year-old migrant from Henan province, who was selling grapes. Wang told Human Rights Watch that three of the chengguan officers got onto Wang’s cart and without explanation began confiscating her grapes. When Wang protested, they began kicking her. They then threw her from her cart into the road. While they kicked her, they cursed her, saying “Fxxx your mother. You dare ask us for a reason?” After Wang was tossed from her cart, the fourth chengguan officer, who had silently stood by during the beating, interceded and instructed her three colleagues to stop beating Wang. The chengguan officers confiscated Wang’s grapes and departed. Wang was left with deep bruising from the attack. [1]

Since its founding in 1997, China’s Chengguan Urban Management Law Enforcement ( 城管执法 ), a para-police agency tasked with enforcing non-criminal urban administrative regulations, has earned a reputation for excessive force and impunity. The chengguan have become synonymous among some Chinese citizens with arbitrary and thuggish behavior including assaults on suspected administrative law violators (some of which lead to serious injury or death), illegal detention, and abuses accompanying forceful confiscation of property.

This report provides an overview of the creation and development of chengguan units over the past 15 years, details recent cases of abuse, and sets forth recommendations for ending the abuses.

In important respects, the concerns highlighted here are illustrative of problems plaguing law enforcement in China more generally: abusive behavior that often goes unpunished, failure to uphold the principle “innocent until proven guilty,” unclear legal regulation, and an obdurate bureaucracy intent on protecting itself. While China allows media coverage of chengguan abuses, regular police on some occasions intervene to protect victims, and there have been some efforts at reform, the problems persist and merit the attention of both Chinese leaders and concerned international actors.

The findings here are based on Human Rights Watch interviews with victims of chengguan abuse and other research in six Chinese cities between mid-2009 and 2011 as well as analysis of Chinese-language sources, including laws, regulations, and academic articles, and review of other published reports of chengguan abuses. An appendix provides details of more than 150 cases of chengguan abuses reported in Chinese national and local media between July 2010 and March 2012.

Victims of chengguan abuse interviewed by Human Rights Watch told us they were slapped, shoved, pushed to the ground, forcibly held down on the ground, dragged, punched, kicked, and thrown from their vehicles to the street. Many of those with whom Human Rights Watch spoke were street vendors, whose status as internal migrants puts them at particular risk of abuse.

Although chengguan personnel have no legal authority to detain suspects, several interviewees said they were detained by them. Some said they suffered physical abuses while detained or while resisting being detained. Many street vendors told us their vehicles and merchandise were confiscated. In some instances, chengguan officers conditioned the return of confiscated belongings on payment of seemingly arbitrary fines, spurring popular speculation of corruption by chengguan authorities.

Chengguan have also been implicated in abusive forced evictions of residents from their homes at a time when alleged collusion between corrupt officials and property developers has created what a Chinese human rights organization has described as a “pandemic of illegal demolition” in China. Chinese journalists who attempt to report on chengguan abuses have also been targeted with illegal detention and physical violence by chengguan.

The report builds on Human Rights Watch work published over the past five years documenting violations by Chinese police and other public security forces, including enforced disappearances, abuses in detention, torture to gain information and confessions, and lack of due process in police investigations and judicial proceedings. And while the Chinese government has launched legal reform initiatives aimed at reducing police abuses, the chengguan, as a non-criminal law enforcement organ, has not yet been the target of such initiatives. Despite criticism of chengguan abuses by the Chinese public, state media, lawyers, and legal scholars, the Chinese government has failed to develop effective mechanisms to prevent abuses and punish perpetrators.

China’s first chengguan unit began operating on an experimental basis in Beijing in 1997 following passage of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administrative Penalty (hereafter, “Administrative Penalties Law”). That law gave municipalities authority to create a new mechanism for enforcing non-criminal municipal regulations and imposing fines on violators. The impetus for the chengguan’s founding included both official frustration with the effectiveness of existing administrative enforcement mechanisms and government concern about the emergence of new perceived threats to social stability in the late 1990s.

The Administrative Penalties Law permits provincial, autonomous region, and municipal governments to transfer law-enforcement duties for relatively minor infractions in areas such as traffic control, environmental regulation, and city beautification from existing municipal departments to new units tasked specifically with such duties. In response, a total of 308 Chinese municipalities formed chengguan units by the end of 2005. Beijing’s ranks of chengguan officers grew from just over 100 in 1997 to 6,200 by July 2010. Chengguan responsibilities also grew exponentially in that period. Beijing’s chengguan currently have legal enforcement power over more than 300 different infractions, extending to “almost every aspect of city residents’ lives.” [2]

In principle, chengguan can be criminally prosecuted for abuses of power under existing Chinese law, but such charges are rarely brought. There is no overarching national regulatory framework laying out the permissible scope of chengguan duties, no uniform training requirements or code of conduct, and no systematic monitoring and investigation of alleged chengguan abuses. Ad hoc, localized regulation and control of chengguan has in at least one case resulted in a city government explicitly training its chengguan to avoid visible signs of abuse when dealing with suspects, implicitly authorizing their mistreatment: a Beijing chengguan training manual circulated online in April 2009 stipulates that in the course of enforcement operations, chengguan should, “In dealing with the subject, take care to leave no blood on the face, no wounds on the body, and [ensure that] no people [are] in the vicinity.” [3]

Concerns about chengguan excesses have prompted calls for reform from Chinese legal experts and scholars, with proposed remedies ranging from new, stringent laws on chengguan operations and conduct, to outright abolition of the units and transfer of their duties to China’s Public Security Bureau (police). Some municipalities have responded to criticism of chengguan abuses by imposing limitations on chengguan powers. Those limitations have in some cities included explicit prohibitions on chengguan use of “excessive force” in the discharge of their duties. However, other cities have focused on more cosmetic approaches to public criticism of chengguan abuses; one notable example is Chengdu city officials’ trumpeting as evidence of reform their creation of special female chengguan units who carry out their duties on roller-skates.

Senior Chinese government officials regularly speak of their commitment to the rule of law and their respect for people’s human rights. A 2004 constitutional amendment reads, “The state respects and preserves human rights.” [4] Yet China’s state media continue to report on troubling instances of violent behavior by chengguan officers and physical confrontations between chengguan and street vendors on a near-weekly basis. A Google search for Chinese-language references to chengguan produces literally millions of entries for “chengguan beat people” ( 城管打人 ). Public resentment of chengguan abuses and the apparent impunity these forces enjoy have fueled a number of violent protests. Allowing these forces to continue to operate with impunity is likely to fuel greater public resentment leading to more violent confrontations.

[1]Human Rights Watch interview with Wang Ren (a pseudonym), a Beijing street vendor, December 7, 2010.

[2]池启演主编.,《最新基层城管工作必备手册》,(北京中国大地出版社2008) [Chi Qiyan, ed., The Newest Essential Manual for Chengguan Grassroots Work(Beijing: China Land Press, 2008)].

[3]张东锋, 网友曝光城管打人不见血教材”,南方都市报(广州)[Zhang Dongfeng, Netizen exposes textbook on beating without drawing blood,Southern Metropolis Daily (Guangzhou)], July 22, 2009, (accessed October 11, 2011).

[4] Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (adopted on December 4, 1982), art. 33, (accessed March 28, 2012).