I didn’t notice the apple seller at first. I was walking east on Shanghai’s Changle Street—the Street of Eternal Happiness—mentally making a list of all the things I needed to do to fix up the apartment I had moved into the day before, while the fruit vendor slowly pedaled his tricycle cart in the road ahead of me. Preoccupied, I might never have taken note of the man if not for the white station wagon with a shield painted on the side that slowed down and stopped behind him. Four men jumped out of the car and rushed at the tricycle cart; in a flash, before I could even fully absorb what was happening in front of me, the men had overturned it and knocked the apple seller to the ground. Apples rolled everywhere, scattering across the street like hundreds of billiard balls, while the men briefly yelled at the silent vendor and then got back in their station wagon and drove away. The entire incident lasted under two minutes.
That encounter last October was my first exposure to Shanghai’s chengguan, or para-police “urban management” teams, though I had read about the controversial actions of these thuggish squads in cities across China many times over the preceding couple of years. Unarmed but often quick to intimidate and use violence, chengguan patrol the city streets looking for administrative violations; they are meant to enforce rules pertaining to sanitation, construction, environmental protection, and vending, but they have a reputation for being thugs. Street hawkers seem to be the prime targets of chengguan ire. Often the first sign that a unit is rumored to be nearby is sidewalk vendors quickly collecting their goods and rolling up their mats, scattering before the officers arrive. Many of these unlicensed vendors are rural migrants, who make easy prey for chengguan: they sit at the bottom of the urban social ladder and are often looked down upon by locals, and since they’re generally engaged in illegal occupations, they’re unlikely to go to the police for assistance if a chengguan unit treats them harshly.
In the past week, two new stories of chengguan brutality have again called the country’s attention to the lawlessness of these law enforcers. Last Wednesday morning, Deng Zhengjia, a watermelon seller in the Hunanprovince city of Linwu, got into an altercation with chengguan officers. The chengguan allegedly struck Deng in the head, delivering a fatal blow with a weight from his own handheld scale. The local police claimed that Deng “unexpectedly fell to the ground and died,” a statement quickly mocked online for its absurdity. The next night, a street vendor in the far northeastern city of Harbin also fell afoul of a chengguan unit, which allegedly beat him with bricks and walkie-talkies before chasing away a television crew attempting to document the incident.
Both cases, but especially Deng’s, have sparked an outcry against the blatantly abusive actions of chengguan. On Weibo, the popular Chinese micro-blogging platform, users have posted criticisms and cartoons inspired by Deng’s death. Li Chengpeng, a well-known blogger, posted a trenchant essay castigating the Chinese government for permitting such incidents to occur. Deng Zhengjia, Li wrote, was doing nothing more than pursuing “his Chinese dream”—a politically loaded term that references President Xi Jinping’s promotion of “the Chinese dream” in his quest to maintain stability and consolidate his power. In response, the government has shut down Li’s micro-blogging account for thirty days.
Despite its silencing of Li Chengpeng, the government seems to recognize that Deng’s death cannot go unaddressed. The six chengguan officers involved have been detained on criminal charges, and the two officials at the top of the local chengguan bureau have both been fired and are now subject to investigation. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, also reports that Deng’s family has been offered substantial compensation of 897,000 renminbi ($146,172) by the local government. The authorities have given every indication that they hope to settle the case quickly. By treating it as a local matter resulting from the actions of a few wayward individuals, officials can skirt a more comprehensive examination of the chengguan apparatus and its shortcomings.
Although some journalists and online commentators have compared Deng’s death to that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation helped spark the Arab Spring in 2011, we shouldn’t expect a similar outcome in China. Chengguan violations generate widespread disgust and denunciation when they occur, but this public outcry often quickly subsides. Most in China—including many urban migrants—still feel their lives are on an upward course, and the Chinese Communist Party works hard to remind the country’s citizens that it deserves credit for three decades of economic growth and improvements in living standards. While netizens and activists may condemn the thuggish tactics employed by chengguan to maintain urban stability, there is not enough cohesive or sustained citizen outrage to make an Arab Spring–like movement likely in China.
Even a third headline-grabbing incident, the Saturday evening detonation of a homemade bomb at Beijing’s Capital Airport by Ji Zhongxing, a wheelchair-bound man whose paralysis is the result of a chengguan beating in 2005, seems to have had minimal effect. Ninety minutes after the explosion, the airport terminal was once again operating as usual. Weibo commentators expressed support for Ji’s plight and his care not to injure anyone but himself, but there’s no indication that this online chatter will translate into real-world protests. And with security officials in Guangdong province, where Ji’s chengguan encounter occurred, ordered to reopen his case, it’s possible that his complaint will also be dispatched with quickly. While there’s a general sense that the chengguan system is a malignant one, inertia on all sides keeps it in place.
Ever since that sunny Wednesday morning last October, I’ve gotten goosebumps and started walking faster whenever I spot a chengguan unit here in Shanghai. The unapologetic violence the police demonstrated stunned me, but just as surprising was the response of the apple seller they knocked to the ground. He said nothing and made no attempt at fending off the chengguan’s actions; he could have met the same fate as Deng Zhengjia or Ji Zhongxing, but chose not to fight back. After the officers drove away, he righted his tricycle cart and rode off, leaving the Street of Eternal Happiness strewn with apples—a blight on one of the avenues the chengguan are tasked with keeping clean.
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a PhD candidate in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine.