A new guide issued to city management officials, or "chengguan," has sparked fears among Chinese netizens that the authorities are now openly supporting the routine use of violence in ensuring cleanliness and order on city streets.
Some analysts said the move could be evidence of a tougher law enforcement line following a crucial leadership transition earlier this month at the 18th Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party that ended Nov. 13.
The guide, newly finalized and soon to be issued to chengguan in the remote western province of Gansu, and contains a clause on the use of violence in enforcing urban planning and hygiene regulations.
"Urban management enforcement officials may use coercive administrative measures such as detention and seizure," the guide says.
"Those who do not follow directions at the scene will be given a verbal warning, and if they continue to refuse to do as they are told, reasonable levels of physical force may be used to avoid obstruction of duty."
Worries of abuse
Netizens and rights activists said the document was extremely worrying.
"I am worried, because I think that this clause will be abused [by officials]," said Li Xiaoling of the Northwestern Minorities University in Gansu.
Shenzhen-based rights activist Zhu Jianguo said the new directive, which is unlikely to be confined to Gansu alone, effectively elevated the status of chengguan to the level of police officers.
"In the past, the chengguan have tried to cover up incidents where they used violence, but now it appears that they can be openly violent in their enforcement of the law," Zhu said.
"It seems as if the administration is taking a harder line, and gives us an idea of where things are headed following the 18th Party Congress," he said.
Online commentator Liu Yiming said that any attempt to legitimize the use of force by the chengguan would make social tensions far worse than they already are.
"For Gansu to issue a news item like that means that the authorities are now openly approving the use of violence in law enforcement," Liu said. "This means that other provinces and cities will follow suit."
"China will turn into a true police state, and there will be worse and worse clashes between ordinary people and the chengguan," he said.
Zhu said the move was also at odds with recent rhetoric in Beijing.
"One the one hand they talk about the well-being of the people, but on the other, they are taking us back to the Mao Zedong era of a hard-line government," he said.
"They are being totally and openly authoritarian now, and I see now that I misunderstood what they were saying at the 18th Party Congress about getting closer to the people."
A law unto themselves
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.
According to a report earlier this year from the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, chengguan routinely abuse their authority in their attempts to keep city streets in order and are often themselves a threat to public safety.
The para-police agency lacks effective official supervision, training, and discipline, Human Rights in China (HRIC) said in the report, titled "Beat Him, Take Everything Away."
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 followed similar protests in Sichuan’s Yibing city in November 2007, and in Hunan’s Shaoyang city in May 2008.
Chengguan beatings are also a common theme among China's 250 million 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."
China on Nov. 14 revealed its new leadership line-up after the closing session of the 18th Party Congress, with Vice President Xi Jinping replacing outgoing president Hu Jintao as the Party's new general secretary and Li Keqiang predictably taking over the number two slot on the all-powerful Politburo standing committee from outgoing premier Wen Jiabao.
Both will be confirmed in their government jobs as president and premier at the National People's Congress, the country's largely rubber-stamp parliament, in March 2013.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.