Beating Death Sparks Mass Protests in Central China

2008-01-10
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Protests in Zhengzhou, central China, after a student was beaten by chengguan. June, 2007.

HONG KONG—Thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens have gathered outside government offices in the central city of Tianmen, Hubei province, in a wave of anger and sympathy after the beating death of a man by law enforcement officials.

Wei Wenhua, the manager of a water resources construction company connected to the municipal government water resources department, was beaten to death by a dozen "urban management officials," or chengguan , on Jan. 7.

The officials were angry because he filmed them, using his mobile phone camera, clashing with local residents opposed to waste-dumping on a site near their homes.

"Right now I am filled with grief and anger," said Wei Wenzhong, the younger brother of the dead man.

Thousands gathered

Shrines have been set up spontaneously by ordinary people...People from all walks of life in Tianmen, high status and low, are coming of their own accord.

"I don't know what to tell you," he told RFA's Cantonese service, before declining to be interviewed further because he was in the middle of funeral arrangements.

Wei’s death also prompted a mass outpouring of grief and anger among the residents of Tianmen, with thousands gathering outside government offices Wednesday, and filing past a shrine to pay their respects Thursday.

“Shrines have been set up spontaneously by ordinary people,” a Tianmen taxi driver told RFA’s Mandarin service. “One of them is outside the water resources department of the municipal government. People are placing wreaths there. Their respects are being received by a few of Wei’s former colleagues.”

“There are people from all walks of life, high status and low, from Tianmen city. The taxi drivers joined together and bought six wreaths with our own money. There is a spontaneous stream of visitors to the shrine,” said the taxi driver, who is in the middle of a dispute with the government over the levying of fees and charges on his trade.

An eyewitness surnamed Zhang said “thousands” of people had massed outside the government building in downtown Tianmen Wednesday.

“There were a lot of people there today. Several thousand, I’d say,” he told reporter Yan Xiu. “A lot of them were just watching to see what would happen.”

Not the first time

The beating isn’t the first by the chengguan to result in mass protests: Several similar incidents have been reported across China in the past year, some of which also resulted in death.

The chengguan are a relatively new phenomenon in China, set up ostensibly to deal with “low-level crime” in cities. But according to Yao Lifa, a vocal democracy activist and former local People’s Congress deputy, they are a law unto themselves.

“The use of unnecessary brute force by urban management officials to oppress people is a fact of life across China,” he told a panel discussion hosted by Shen Hua.

“The beating to death of an innocent citizen...is truly unthinkable.”

Yao said the chengguan were paid no wages, but instead were forced to levy fines and fees from citizens for income.

“A lot of chengguan are demobilized soldiers,” Yao said. “That’s one factor. Another factor is that they are all very well-connected. Some of them are in military circles and some of them are in non-military circles.”

Yao said their job seemed to be to keep cities free of hawkers and beggars during high-profile events, rather than to improve the urban environment for everyone.

“This isn’t the first time someone has been beaten to death by the chengguan . They have their orders from above. It’s very clear: Do what you like to get the job done, as long as you don’t kill someone.”

“It’s not that they want to beat people up. They are told to do so by the leadership. The people they beat up are the weakest in society. They can afford to anger them. After the event, they don’t take responsibility, and they are able to evade any legal attempts to pursue them,” he added.

Mass expressions of anger have followed beatings to death of street vendors in incidents involving chengguan in Sichuan’s Yibing city in November, and in Hunan’s Shaoyang city in May.

In Zhengzhou, thousands gathered to protest in June after the beating of a female student by the chengguan .

Many such incidents are recorded on mobile phones, in exactly the same way that led to Wei’s death in Tianmen.

China has recently moved to restrict online video to state-controlled companies with specific approval, throwing into question the role of video-sharing sites in the new wave of citizen journalism.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Yan Xiu, Yan Ming, Shen Hua and Xin Yu, and in Cantonese by Lee Yung-tim and Fung Yat-yiu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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