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The chengguan urban management officers are meant to enforce non-criminal administrative regulations. Numerous cases of beatings and illegal detention suggest it’s time to rein them in.

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.

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.

That expansion reflects how the chengguan have benefitted from the wider explosive growth in China’s domestic security apparatus over the past decade. In 2012, the Chinese government allocated $111 billion for “social stability maintenance,” its Orwellian term for the domestic security apparatus, a 12 percent increase over 2011. The Chinese writer Yu Hua, in his 2011 book “China in Ten Words” describes how the August 2006 stabbing death of a Beijing chengguan prompted a spending spree by chengguan authorities rather than official investigation about the source of popular anger against the agency: “After the stabbing, protective equipment became more sophisticated. [Chengguan] were fitted out with smart phones, knife-proof vests, helmets, slash-resistant gloves, high intensity flashlights and so forth.” 

But while the Chinese government’s largesse in expanding the size and strength of the chengguan is unquestionable, the legal basis is contested. There’s no overarching national regulatory framework of the permissible scope of chengguan duties, no uniform training requirements or code of conduct and no systematic monitoring and investigation of alleged chengguan abuses. The urgent need for such mechanisms was highlighted in April 2009 when a Beijing chengguan training manual circulated online included instructions 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.”

Such abuses have prompted calls by Chinese legal experts and scholars for reform, if not outright abolition, of the chengguan. Some municipalities have responded to public antipathy toward the chengguan by imposing limitations on their powers, including prohibitions on “excessive force.”  But in the absence of central government intervention, chengguan excesses provoke violent responses from targeted vendors and other members of the public grown weary of their abuses. 

Part of the legacy of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who are quickly nearing the end of their decade in power, is a litany of security agency malfeasance ranging from enforced disappearances and abuses in detention to intimidation of lawyers. A meaningful government initiative in the last months of 2012 to rein in the chengguan, to prevent their abuses and punish the abusers would be a small but meaningful step toward the Chinese government actually honoring its 2004 constitutional amendment that says, “The state respects and preserves human rights.”

Phelim Kine is a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of a new report, “Beat Him, Take Everything Away” released May 23 in Hong Kong. 

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