China’s Chengguan Caught in a Vicious Cycle

Chengguan, or members of China’s various Urban Administrative Law Enforcement Bureaus, have long been known to take a heavy hand in doling out their power on unlicensed street vendors. So far this year, abusive chengguan have repeatedly been the targets of public outrage, and the Global Times reports on the latest efforts in an ongoing campaign in Wuhan to restore the disgraced image associated with these municipal officials:

The Wuhan bureau, in Hubei Province, announced it will promote 20 officers who perform their duties well and punish 10 officers who have the worst performance every year. In serious cases, the officers can be fired, the bureau said.

The bureau is said to be working on a by-law to regulate the work of the city’s chengguan, the urban management officers whose normal work is patrolling the street for illegal vendors and checking small shops for infringements.

[…]Wuhan urban management authorities have tried different tactics to improve the image of their officers in recent years, after many reports appeared of chengguan across the nation having resorted to violence to enforce the rules. [Source]

Another tactic being used in Wuhan has chengguan operating incognito, posing as the street vendors they are employed to crackdown on, as the South China Morning Post reported earlier this month:

An urban management official arrested for moonlighting as a street vendor at the weekend was actually an “undercover agent” on assignment, authorities from Wuhan, China’s Hubei province, said on Monday.

The official, or chengguan as they are more commonly known, was arrested after he was caught selling ceramic mugs on a sidewalk in the Wuhan’s Hongshan district on Sunday.

Hongshan’s Urban Management Bureau later confirmed the 33-year-old officer, surnamed Gui, had been its employee at the time but was in the middle of an “experimental” undercover assignment that involved infiltrating the street vendor circles, the Chutian Metropolis Daily reported on Monday. [Source]

After pointing to a subsequent radio interview [zh] in which a Wuhan district chengguan chief explained that the sting was to humanize street vendors and promote more humane enforcement, Tea Leaf Nation notes that these urban street enforcers may be doomed to bear the brunt of public outrage regardless of PR campaigns or reformed enforcement tactics:

[…]Since its inception in 1998, there has been no systematic, nationwide law or regulation that designates its duties, specifies its administrative procedures, or limits its power. Meanwhile, the list of daily tasks that chengguan are charged with has become increasingly convoluted, chaotic, and infeasible. In an interview with the Beijing Evening News, one urban enforcer complained that other government organs throw to chengguan any administrative task they cannot handle themselves.

What’s worse, no central bureau is responsible for supervising, evaluating, and monitoring the performance of chengguan. Because of their social stigma, even chengguans’ regular  and legitimate administrative activities are interpreted in the worst light. In recent years, street vendors have increasingly employed violence to resist chengguan actions, yet the general public rarely showed sympathy to the enforcers on the receiving end of the violence.

This malignant cycle engenders a worsening relationship between chengguan and the public, making it more difficult for urban enforcers to carry out their legitimate duties free of harassment. With such a deeply-rooted institutional deadlock lying in the background, it is unlikely Wuhan can stop the vicious cycle alone. [Source]

See also “Chengguan: Abusive or Misunderstood?” or all prior CDT coverage of chengguanstreet vendors, or corruption.

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