Word of the Week: Nongguan (农管, Nóngguǎn)—Rural Management Officials, or “Legalized Bandits”?

China’s infamous urban management agents, known as chengguan, have a new rural equivalent, the nongguan (“rural management”). Nongguan is the unofficial name for a new corps of agricultural law-enforcement officers, “Rural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Brigades,” set up by cities and counties across China on the orders of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Management. Intended to provide much-needed policing muscle in rural areas, nongguan have earned themselves notoriety for their forceful execution of a nationwide food security campaign timed to correspond with the 2023 spring planting season. This has been their first mass public deployment. Viral videos allegedly showing nongguan spraying fields with lime, demanding villagers replant ginger fields with rice, destroying tobacco harvests, demolishing homes, and confiscating livestock have earned them their nickname, a comparison to the urban chengguan widely perceived as thuggish and corrupt. On Weibo, netizens reacted to the videos by comparing the nongguan to the “Big Whites” who enforced the zero-COVID  policy:

路法幽冥军团:Devils on the village doorstep

宋汝界律师:This is robbery, plain and simple.

就是一条懒狗:Out with the “Big Whites” and in with the nongguan, both novel forms of gangsterism for a New Era.

冰封元林:Are nongguan just legalized bandits?

太空爱好网:Have you applied for your chicken’s egg permit yet? No? Well, we’ll have to confiscate both the chicken and the eggs.

迷失森林111:Even the bandits of yore would never dare to do this. Yet under our glorious socialist system they do it in broad daylight, and there’s not a thing we can say about it. [Chinese]

The Economist’s Chagguan column reported on initial reactions to the nongguan, finding deep skepticism amongst the public and dismay among the nongguan about their new nickname:

Revealingly, the public reaction has been loud and mostly hostile. Online forums have filled with anecdotes about thuggish rural officials. The new agents have been nicknamed nongguan, or agricultural-management officers. That is a play on urban-management officers, or chengguan, who are among China’s most despised functionaries, derided for their nit-picking ways and record of violence against market traders, food-cart owners and the like. Reports of a squad of agricultural-enforcement agents in Tibet trying to buy electric-shock batons and other police gear have gone viral. If leaders in Beijing hoped to hear applause for new, central-government oversight of rural law enforcement, they have been disappointed. In the past, Chinese have expressed confidence in national leaders, while blaming abuses on local officials. But citizens, exhausted by years of zero-covid bossiness, seem ready to assume that new powers will be abused, whether national leaders are watching or not.

Back in Henan, an agricultural-law-enforcement official declines a formal interview, but admits to dismay about the loud public backlash. Worried bosses have ordered him to post explanatory videos and statements from the agriculture ministry on his social-media accounts, he confides. He calls the nickname nongguan unhelpful and misleading, and denies that he and colleagues will wield any new police powers or seek to manage farmers’ lives.

Perhaps the bleakest verdict on the reform comes from Niezhang. Detailing years of local corruption and favouritism, farmers scoff at the idea that good policies can survive the journey to their village. “All crows under heaven are equally black” and all village cadres dishonest, declares a farmer in his 70s. The party is betting that professionalised law enforcement can offer a new source of legitimacy, amid worries about a slowing economy. Alas, grassroots cynicism is a force beyond even Mr Xi’s control. [Source]

Some essays critiquing the nongguan have been censored. A WeChat essay that detailed nongguan’s alleged abuses and speculated that nongguan power would expand drastically—even to the extent of controlling people’s hairstyle and clothing—was taken down from the platform for unspecified violations of laws, regulations and policies. Other essays that wrote about similar worries, but without the hyperbole, went uncensored. 

At Radio Free Asia, Gu Ting reported that the Ministry of Agriculture issued a video addressing popular concerns about nongguan that reminded law enforcement officers that all their actions must have “legal authorization”:

By April 15, the Ministry of Agriculture had weighed in with a lengthy question-and-answer video warning its enforcement officials that “nothing can be done without legal authorization.”

It wasn’t clear if similar notices were posted in other areas, but the fact that the agricultural ministry issued an explainer and warned local officials not to overstep suggests it fears the issue could be widespread.

[…] “The duty and mission of the agricultural law enforcement team is mainly to crack down on illegal activities like counterfeit and shoddy seeds, pesticides, and veterinary drugs,” the video said.

“Prohibiting the planting of melons and other vegetables in people’s gardens don’t fall within [their remit],” it said, calling for “more tolerant and prudent” approach to “minor violations by small farmers, farmers’ cooperatives and small agribusinesses.” [Source]


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