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(Hong Kong) – China’s “chengguan,” the para-police agency tasked with enforcing non-criminal urban administrative regulations, is in some circumstances a threat to, rather than a guarantor of, public safety due to the agency’s lack of effective official supervision, training, and discipline, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 76-page report, “Beat Him, Take Everything Away,” documents abuses by the chengguan Urban Management Law Enforcement (城管执法) forces, including assaults on suspected administrative law violators, some of which lead to serious injury or death, illegal detention, and unlawful forceful confiscation of property.

“The chengguan’s abusive conduct turns the idea of rule of law on its head,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of carrying out clearly defined and limited activities to enforce the law, some chengguan are abusing their authority.”

Established in 1997, there are now thousands of chengguan para-police in at least 656 cities across China. In principle, their role is to enforce non-criminal administrative regulations, including rules governing environmental, sanitation, traffic, and urban beautification, and, where legally appropriate, impose fines on violators. They do not have the legal authority to detain or use excessive force against suspected violators of non-criminal administrative regulations.

However, 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, leading to ad hoc, localized regulation and control of the force.

Chengguan forces have earned a reputation for brutality and impunity,” said Richardson. “They are now synonymous for many Chinese citizens with physical violence, illegal detention, and theft.”

In some violent encounters, members of the chengguan force have become victims. Human Rights Watch research also turned up four cases in which chengguan have been killed in the course of their duties in recent years.

Twenty-five victims of chengguan abuse, many of them street vendors, described to Human Rights Watch abuse that included physical violence, such as being slapped, shoved, pushed to the ground, forcibly held down on the ground, dragged, punched, kicked, and thrown from their vehicles to the street. Although chengguan personnel have no legal authority to detain suspects, several interviewees said they were detained. Some said they suffered physical abuses while detained or while resisting being detained. Many street vendors told Human Rights Watch that 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. Most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that chengguan refused to explain the legal basis for their actions.

Reports in Chinese state media echo Human Rights Watch’s research on chengguan abuses. A 21-page appendix to the report lists state media articles, published between July 2010 and March 2012, on incidents of excessive force, unlawful detention, and a failure by government officials and police to take legal action against the alleged chengguan perpetrators.

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 in cities across China. Chengguan have been implicated in abusive forced evictions of residents from their homes at a time of what one Chinese human rights organization has described as a “pandemic of illegal demolition.” Chinese journalists who attempt to report on chengguan abuses have also been targeted with illegal detention and physical violence.

Chengguan abuses are an open scandal in China,” Richardson said. “The government should move swiftly to publicly and unambiguously condemn chengguan assaults and investigate those responsible for such acts.”

Concerns about chengguan excesses have prompted calls for reform from Chinese legal experts and scholars. Proposed remedies range 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, such as explicit prohibitions on chengguan use of “excessive force” in the discharge of their duties.

But there are few known efforts to clarify what conduct is permissible and what is prohibited for chengguan in the course of carrying out their duties. There is also little publicly available information describing efforts to standardize training and discipline. For example, there is no publicly available evidence that Beijing’s manual for chengguan operations, circulated on the internet in April 2009, has been revised; that document states that 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.” In principle, chengguan can be criminally prosecuted for abuses of power under existing Chinese law, but such charges are rarely if ever brought.

“Impunity for chengguan abuses is consistent with a larger trend of increasingly powerful, well-funded, but wholly unaccountable security agencies in China,” Richardson said. “The chengguan’s ability to flout China’s laws and inflict harm on members of the public is a recipe for greater public resentment and more violent confrontations.”

Select testimonies:

A Beijing street vendor described her encounter with chengguan in April 2010: “[The chengguan officers] verbally abused me and beat me. They hit me in the head and face and my nose was bleeding. They punched me in the face until my face was swollen.”

A Beijing vendor of beef kebabs expressed his confusion and frustration to Human Rights Watch about why chengguan assaulted him in July 2010: “No reason was given. They never told me what crime I had committed. In fact, up to this day, I still do not know if doing this business is legal or not.”

A street vendor in Shenyang, Liaoning province told Human Rights Watch of chengguan personnel’s use of excessive force against her husband after they had illegally detained him for selling sausages: “[The chengguan] dragged my husband to the [chengguan] office and started asking him if he had an urban or rural hukou. A [second] chengguan officer entered the room and both of them started kicking my husband. That lasted between one and two minutes. My husband was kneeling on the floor … he never once lifted his head.”

A migrant street vendor in Shenyang, Liaoning province described the mid-2007 violent confiscation of her belongings by chengguan personnel: “They confiscated my belongings and though I offered to pay them [a fine], the chengguan officers said ‘We don’t want money. It’s too late for that.’ Six of the seven [chengguan officers] surrounded me; once their leader arrived, all his junior [officers] came up and started kicking me, causing me to fall. Many passersby witnessed it and they were all asking the officers to stop hitting me.”

A journalist in Kunming, Yunnan province told Human Rights Watch what transpired when he tried to interview a victim of Chengguan violence in on March 26, 2010: “I was about to interview a little girl who was sitting on the ground crying, when [the chengguan] came up to me claiming that I had crossed the police cordon. About six [chengguan] used their plastic batons to hit me, and they kicked me, too. They ignored me completely when I said I was a reporter. Although there were police officers on the scene, they did not stop the chengguan officers 

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