Watermelon Vendor’s Death Sparks Fury at Chengguan

On Tuesday, China Daily published a partial translation of an article from People’s Daily expressing bewilderment at the unpopularity of chengguan urban management officials. “Perhaps,” it suggested, “this is the result of the violent and at times brutal law enforcement methods of chengguan and people’s sympathy with the underprivileged group of [street] vendors.” A slideshow at Caixin illustrated the point.

The following day, a 56-year-old watermelon vendor died during a confrontation with chengguan in Hunan. Witnesses reported that Deng Zhengjia was beaten and smashed in the head with one of his own metal weights; local officials detained six chengguan who had been involved, but claimed that Deng had simply collapsed and died in the middle of an argument. From Danwei’s Neil Thomas:

On the morning of 17 June, 56-year-old Deng Jiazheng and his wife drove from their home in Liantang Village in Hunan province to the prefecture level city of Chenzhou to sell watermelons. They set up a street-side stall on Jiefangnan Road, but a group of chengguan arrived and fined them 100 yuan for trading without a proper license. When the chengguan decided to also take a few watermelons, Deng’s wife tried to block their path and was forcefully pushed aside.

The couple packed up and moved to a different location, but just as they were unloading their watermelons again, a group of approximately ten chengguan rushed to the scene and an intense argument broke out. Passers-by filming the incident had their phones confiscated or smashed by the chengguan. Seven or eight chengguan then surrounded Deng and his wife and started beating them.

An eyewitness claims that Deng received a heavy blow to the head from a chengguan wielding one of the sliding measure weights Deng uses to sell his watermelons. Deng then fell to the ground, dead. Deng’s wife was also seriously injured and is being treated in hospital. [Source]

The incident closely resembles that of Deng Qiguo, a fruit vendor and single father allegedly beaten to death by chengguan in Guizhou in 2011. That incident sparked protests and the detention and beating of reporter Lu Chaoguo. The case has also drawn comparison with that of Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in 2010 ignited the Arab Spring.

Public anger at this week’s incident was intensified by suspicion that local authorities were trying to hide evidence, though officials claimed on Thursday that they had removed Deng’s body from the scene only at his family’s request. From Xiaoqing Pi at China Real Time:

Thousands took to the streets in Linwu county of Hunan province on Wednesday and Thursday in order to keep the dead body from being taken away by local law enforcement officers, according to local media. People believed that keeping the body for autopsy was the only way to prove that the vendor was lethally beaten

Around 4 a.m. on Thursday morning, however, about 200 local police officers intruded the crowd with sticks and shields, taking the body away, said witnesses and reporters, including a reporter from the website of state broadcaster China Central Television (in Chinese). Bloody pictures of injured civilians were posted on Weibo [see a collection at Offbeat China], and two reporters from a local Hunan television network also alleged that they were beaten when interviewing witnesses. [The two were reportedly threatened with death if they kept filming.]

On Thursday, the family of Mr. Deng consented to an autopsy conducted by a forensic team designated by the local government, but only on the condition that they be allowed to be present during the autopsy and keep samples from it, according to Hunan Daily, a Communist Party newspaper. Hunan Daily’s official Weibo account later deleted most of its posts about the event. [Source]

A Global Times editorial on Friday argued that the authorities had simply been trying to keep the peace, but that their methods were “not mature.” Amid calls for the abolition of chengguan, it claimed that Deng’s death had nothing to do with the system itself, and that if the officers were indeed to blame, it was only because of their “personal qualities.”

Describing the furious reaction to Deng’s death online, South China Morning Post’s Patrick Boehler observed:

What enraged many who commented was that farmer Deng, as far records show, had not engaged in politics or challenged local powers in any way, except for his wish to make a normal living.

Many accept that the way to ensure a normal life in China is to be politically silent. But the injustice of arbitrary attacks on citizens who just seek to make a living and the system’s failure to correct itself are provoking anger. [Source]

One of the most popular responses, forwarded more than 180,000 times, came from blogger Li Chengpeng, who contrasted grass-roots chengguan violence with Xi Jinping’s lofty “Chinese Dream” rhetoric [zh], and warned that the government would reap what it sowed. Though this post is still online, Li was banned from posting for 30 days on Friday, reportedly under orders from “a quite senior official from the Propaganda Ministry.” From Yuxin Gao’s translation at The Telegraph:

In my dear motherland, every brand-new street has seen the brutality of urban management officers. How dare you say you have lived in cities, if you had not witnessed such incidents? Over time, we have become desensitised. But if you insist on looking for an ironic twist, look no further than the dead body of the watermelon vendor. Above it, a sign reads “A Model Street for Urban Management.” It is a model to show to all of you.

Yes, of course the urban management officers did not beat the watermelon vendor. He just fell onto the ground himself and died. It was just like the “temporary rape”, the “adjusted price hike”, the “polite bribe”, the “protective eviction”, the “inflationary tightening” and “taking turns having sex”. Yes, the officers did not kill the vendor. The watermelons did.

[…] The watermelon vendor, Deng Zhengjia, lived in a mountain near Linwu County. He wanted to grow sweet watermelons, have a magnificent harvest, and sell his watermelons quickly, so that he could get home in time for dinner. This was his Chinese dream. He took great care of his watermelons.

Why didn’t you take care of him? Before we sit down to talk about the Chinese dream, you should protect a watermelon vendor’s dream. [Source]

Other reactions came in cartoon form:

See more in Drawing The News on CDT.