Chinese riot police were forced to withdraw after they were overwhelmed in clashes with a large angry crowd protesting the beating of a street vendor by urban management officials, or chengguan, in Sichuan province, residents said Wednesday.
The clashes occurred late Tuesday after a group of chengguan surrounded and beat up a stallholder in Deyang city's Wenmiao Square, they said.
A large crowd began to gather around 7:00 p.m. local time after hearing of the beating and around 200 riot police were dispatched to keep order, eyewitnesses said.
"Because there were more and more people arriving at the scene, some people started to beat up the riot police, and they didn't hit back," said a resident surnamed Chen.
"That's because the crowd was really huge, and the riot police would have stood no chance against all of them."
He said officials at the scene had been unable to respond to the crowd's attacks, and eventually had ordered the riot police to leave.
"The chengguan escaped alongside them, and the crowd pursued them," Chen said. "Some people were picking up rocks from the ground and hurling them at them."
Chen said "at least 2,000 people" had converged on the square, and that two people had been detained and several more injured in the incident.
A second eyewitness surnamed Zhou said the crowds were extremely angry and had surrounded police vehicles, smashing one of them.
Later, rumors circulated that the stallholder had died in hospital, sparking further rioting until around 1:00 a.m. local time, he said.
"Things were incredibly chaotic at the time, and the whole thing escalated," Zhou said. "There were so many people in the crowd."
City officials said on Wednesday they would "make an announcement" over the incident.
"You need to wait until there is an official announcement," said an official who answered the phone at the municipal government offices in Deyang city.
Asked how many had gathered in the crowd, the official said: "I don't know. I wasn't at the scene."
He dismissed as "Internet rumors" reports that at least one person had been beaten to death during the incident.
"Please wait for an official announcement," he said.
An employee who answered the phone in a shop near Wenmiao Square said most of the crowd had seemed like "regular folk."
"[The incident] happened right on the doorstep of the Zhou Dasheng jewelry store," he said.
"We were surrounded by people over here, so we couldn't see what was going on over on the other side."
At the Zhou Dasheng store, an employee who answered the phone said there had been "a clash between the chengguan and a street vendor."
Asked if the vendor had been elderly, he said: "Yes, that's right." But he declined to comment further.
Calls to the Deyang urban management office went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
The chengguan were set up in 1997 to enforce noncriminal administrative regulations, including rules governing the 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.
According to a 2012 report from the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW), chengguan routinely abuse their authority in their attempts to keep city streets in order and lack effective official supervision, training, and discipline.
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.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.