Security, Mismanaged: What the ChenGuan can teach us about Social Issues

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Outside of Nanjing’s subway stops, it is impossible to walk half a mile without finding street vendors and hawkers gathered at the station’s exits. They sit on rugs populated with cheap toys or scales brimming with Persimmons and Chestnuts. They stoop around cardboard tables advertising cell phone protectors. As each vendor gathers the attention of potential customers, they are equally aware of vans patrolling the streets. The van may seem innocuous, simply another car passing by. Yet when men emerge and begin to pull at a vendor’s rug of action figures, the rest of them scramble for their belongings—and money—and scatter.

In increasingly hard economic times, China’s cities produce unconventional issues that bridge the gap between security and other bureaucratic affairs. In these gray areas reside the City Urban Management Bureaus, or ChenGuan(城管) for short. The ChenGuan’s members are a cross between civil servant and police officer, enforcing business-related bylaws of their cities. Their primary aim is to deter the spread of unauthorized postings, sales, and a miscellany of actions that could make a city appear less orderly.

Chinese ChenGuan seldom act without controversy, especially in cities where information spreads virally through mobile networks and message boards. The ChenGuan are notoriously willing to use violent means to perform their tasks.  An apple vendor closing her stand is not sufficient. The ChenGuan might smash crates of apples, completely destroying her wares to prevent her from setting up shop elsewhere. Altercations between the ChenGuan and more stubborn hawkers have turned violent in recent years, with some fights resulting in fatalities.

These conflicts manifested most poignantly in an incident in early July of 2013, when 56-year old Deng Zhengjia, a watermelon vendor selling produce in Hunan province, lay dead on the sidewalk after trading blows with the ChengGuan. A blow from his own produce scale killed him. Angry observers filmed and photographed the incident, including Zhengjia’s body in the aftermath. Clashes involving the ChenGuan increasingly parallel Arab Spring, particularly in the cases of Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia and Khaled Said. Bouazizi, also a produce vendor, was struck in public by a policewoman and had his wares confiscated. Ignored by security bureau officials, he was driven to self-immolate in January of 2011. Khaled Said, a Cairo citizen, was beaten to death by police officers until his once-handsome face was unrecognizable and inhumanly grotesque. Deaths of both young men sparked public unrest.

It is unnerving that police and para-police do not seek to keep the public safe. Rather, they seek to destroy suspected individuals, in property and livelihood. In doing so, ChenGuan liken themselves to the plain-clothed thugs of Arab Spring state security apparatuses.

The ChenGuan cultivate an atmosphere of fear and anger that extends beyond the vendors that they target. Journalists have their equipment confiscated or destroyed, and are showered with threats of violence and death, if they attempt to film scenes of violence. As cases are taken into account by the government, information on vendor incidents becomes increasingly muddled and confidential. Even in such notable cases as the death of Deng Zhengjia, aggrieved family members realize that there is little they can do to challenge the circumstances of their relative’s death.

These incidents bring up an important question: who do the ChenGuan work for? Not for the public, for whom these incidents cause concern, anxiety and disrupt already-busy lives. Nor does the ChenGuan work for the benefit of municipalities, to which their notorious methods can only bring negative attention. What ChenGuan really strive to do is create specific environments within cities. Because vendors or hawkers might be seen as unsightly, they are tasked with removing them using whatever methods possible.

Ultimately, however, both ChenGuan and vendors are symptoms of larger societal and security issues in Urban China. Their willingness and ability to sidestep rules regarding violence is concerning, as these para-security forces can cover ground where police forces can not. There is no dignity in such treatment of vendors, who spend their days carting goods or sit by bushels of produce, trying to sell enough to make a living. Some are older office workers who have been laid off or shunted towards early retirement, unable to make their way back into the workforce. Others face the unemployment problems that are on the rise in China’s cities. Still others are migrant workers who would die rather than face poverty in the countryside. While these individual vendors’ personal tragedies may be small in the context of China’s larger societal ills, these tragedies, when added together, represent significant needs to be solved.

While it is easy for a ChenGuan employee to break scales and ribs, he is ultimately unable to manage the problems that put a hawker onto the streets.

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