Relatives of a Han Chinese migrant worker who died while in the custody of urban management officials, or chengguan, in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have rejected an official autopsy which shows he died of "natural causes."
The wife of Hu Anyi, a shopfitter in Aksu city, said her husband was taken away by chengguan following a dispute with two shop owners in the city's Huaneng shopping mall at the end of May, and died soon after in their custody.
Hu's wife said her suspicions had begun after she traveled with the couple's son from her home province of Shaanxi to deal with his funeral and wind up his affairs in the city.
"We asked them a number of times for the autopsy sheet, but they never gave it to us," she said. "This is because ... it says on the sheet that he had a heart attack from over-excitement following an argument."
She said there were a number of suspicious circumstances surrounding her husband's death, including a friendly relationship between the Aksu chengguan and the couple with whom Hu had been arguing.
China's 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 in a report earlier this year.
The para-police agency, which is tasked with enforcing noncriminal urban administrative regulations, lacks effective official supervision, training, and discipline, the New York-based Human Rights in China said in May.
A source who had been in contact with Hu's family after seeing a post about his death on the Yaxin forum said the family had already hired a lawyer to help them press police for further details of his cause of death.
"The Aksu Communist Party Secretary has already responded by saying that the reports [of a false autopsy] are not factually correct and that the police have detained a number of people following a dispute between shopkeepers," the source said, adding that the Aksu government had already made a payment of 20,000 yuan (U.S. $3,100) to Hu's wife and son.
Meanwhile, authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou are holding three street-sellers, including a disabled man, Qin Xidi, under criminal detention following a standoff with chengguan, according to a lawyer representing them.
"All three of them are highly vulnerable people, and extremely poor," said Qin's lawyer, He Jinhao. "They didn't do anything very wrong, but if charges are brought against them, I think they may be severe."
"Personally, I don't believe they committed any crime, and it would be more fitting that they should be held briefly."
Qin and his wife were being held alongside another disabled man, Lu Shaoming, who was crippled in an industrial accident seven years ago, local media reported.
The three have already been held in the Tianhe district detention center in Guangzhou for four months, and could face jail terms of up to three years if convicted of illegal street-selling.
A local resident surnamed Liang said there were large numbers of migrants on the city's streets, selling small items to make ends meet, and that the chengguan regularly beat them up.
"In the daytime, they have to go to work, but in the evening after they stop work then they set up stalls," he said. "They need to earn money, right? As long as they don't affect our businesses."
"The chengguan—how shall I put this—rule them with a rod of iron," Liang said.
The chengguan were set up in 1997 to enforce noncriminal administrative regulations in China's towns and cities, including rules governing environment, 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.
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 beatings are a common satirical theme among China's 250 million microbloggers, for whom they are a byword for government 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 Hai Nan and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.