China's city management officials, known as "chengguan," routinely abuse their authority in their attempts to keep city streets in order and are often themselves a threat to public safety, a U.S.-based rights group said on Wednesday.
The para-police agency, which is tasked with enforcing non-criminal urban administrative regulations, lacks effective official supervision, training, and discipline, Human Rights in China (HRIC) said in a new report, titled "Beat Him, Take Everything Away."
"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."
The chengguan were set up in 1997 to enforce non-criminal administrative regulations, including rules governing environmental, sanitation, traffic, and civic pride.
But rights activists and netizens say the chengguan, who are often demobilized soldiers, are a law unto themselves, often using unnecessary brute force against ordinary citizens. Often paid no basic wage, they rely on income from fines and fees levied from citizens to make a living.
The HRIC report comes just days after the alleged beating of a local hawker by chengguan sparked a standoff in the eastern province of Jiangsu, in which angry local people overturned a chengguan vehicle.
Local workers said the chengguan officer involved in the incident on May 10 was in the pay of a local canteen and was deliberately preventing local food hawkers from carrying affordable lunch boxes to the construction site where they worked.
"This is the result of the chengguan beating people," said a worker who witnessed the unrest. "We couldn't get hold of our food, so we expressed our anger by overturning their vehicle."
"The hawker who was bringing our food was injured and taken to hospital," the worker said.
The wife of the injured hawker said in a video posted online that the chengguan had prevented him from taking lunchboxes to the workers because of their own vested interests.
"How can this be called administrative law enforcement?" she said. "They should implement the law with more justice and treat everyone the same."
Calls to the Yixing municipal urban management bureau went unanswered during office hours on the day of the incident.
According to Jiangsu-based rights activist Zhang Jianping, the chengguan are often the relatives of local officials.
"There have been examples of chengguan brutality all across China," Zhang said. "It's also a common spark that ignites mass incidents."
In October 2008, the beating of a university student by chengguan in the central city of Zhengzhou sparked mass protests involving tens of thousands of people. The incident had followed similar protests in Sichuan’s Yibing city in November 2007, and in Hunan’s Shaoyang city in May 2008.
"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."
"Chengguan abuses are an open scandal in China,” she said, calling on the government to investigate those responsible.
Chengguan beatings are a common theme among China's 250 microbloggers, for whom they are synonymous with government-sponsored brutality and corruption.
When U.S. President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, one user on the Netease microblog site commented wryly: "The ... chengguan have claimed responsibility for this incident."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.