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A Cappella

Online Rage Flares Against China's Urban Enforcers

[Warning: This article contains graphic images.]

On July 10, netizens in China were outraged, yet again, by a brutal incident involving civilians and chengguan.

Chengguan (城管) are officers charged with maintaining order in Chinese cities. They have developed a reputation for treating unlicensed or otherwise noncompliant street peddlers violently. According to @9号机店, writing on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, a group of chengguan descended on a night market in provincial capital Fuzhou at around eleven o’clock in the evening on July 10, where several of them brutally beat a female peddler who was already trying to run away.

The tweet, since deleted by censors, accompanied gruesome pictures (at right, and below) of the woman peddler lying on the ground with blood on her face and neck, and some paramedics carrying her away on a stretcher. The tweet was quickly commented upon and reposted by thousands of netizens, and several of those reposts have since been deleted as well.

So what really happened?

One netizen, @zXi_Cherish, challenged the tweet’s representation of the facts: “I want the truth, do you dare to post the truth? My colleague was there that day, and it wasn’t like this at all! This woman was obstructing the law with violence, she took out a chair and waved it at a chengguan, but she ended up hurting herself. Fuzhou chengguan Department has the videos.”

Most netizens were not persuaded. @-老六 asked, “A chair can do this to her? Fine, I will wait for the truth, too! Would the chengguan Department dare to publish an unedited version of the video? I ask all the fellow netizens to be our witness!”

Most netizens were outraged by the allegations. @Dingtings commented: “Fuzhou chengguan are worse than organized criminals! Where is righteousness in this world!” @龙先生的Mood said: “This group of wild dogs is biting people again! F— these chengguan! Fuzhou Police, where are you?” @蒋培锋 added: “This is an abuse of power, they are really hurting people out there, they should be prosecuted for criminal liability.”

Trust me, I’m family

Anger only grew after users appearing to be family and friends of the victim started posting more details about the incident. @___轻言, who appears to be the son of the female peddler, posted  pictures of himself and injured women soon after the incident happened, and pleaded for others to help. “My family is being beaten up by chengguan,” he wrote, “Please help! We can’t deal with this! We are at Huiduoli [an area in Fuzhou city], these damn chengguan!”

@Meek_沁沁, a friend of the family, also posted extra details: “Yesterday, 10 trucks with 150 or so chengguan went to Guangda Road, and they started moving the table that my friend has set up by the roadside. My friend’s family did not resist them, but one of the chengguan started hitting my friend’s mother’s head with a wine bottle. My friend started fighting with him in order to defend his mother. A bunch of Chengguan chased after her, and my friend is hurt as well. They are in City No.1 Hospital now.”

Netizens unite! You have nothing to lose but your tweets

This horrific story elicited more than sympathy, as concerned netizens tried their hand at online activism. @刘云歌 urged everyone to repost: “Please, every one of us need to stand up for him (referring to @___轻言, the son of the female peddler) and protect him, we can’t make him do this on his own. We can’t just stand here and watch this; that would be an unforgivable sin in itself. Stand up, everybody, repost, repost, repost.” Others tried to draw the attention of authorities. @鼎边糊reposted while tagging four newspapers’ accounts. @阿达__went one step further, tagging the official Weibo account of the Police Department of Fuzhou (@福州市公安局), writing, “Are you pretending to not see? Don’t disappoint us!”

While Weibo provides a means for chengguan malfeasance to reach the world, and for the world to protest, netizens are nonetheless restrained by their medium of choice. Many related posts have since been deleted, and the official accounts of Fuzhou’s police department and Fuzhou’s chengguan department have ignored the digital outcry.

Realizing that some of the posts are disappearing, netizens started a new thread on Sina.com and documented the entire incident there. They reposted all the original Weibo posts and pictures in the new thread in order to maintain a clear record of what has happened. So far, conversation about this incident is still ongoing on Weibo, although there is not yet any evidence of offline organizing.

How much chengguan abuse is too much?

This is not the first time that Chinese chengguan have attracted widespread criticism. In June 2012, a webpost denouncing the rough treatment of a 70 year-old man by chengguan circulated widely in China’s blogosphere. The 70-year old man was selling home-grown vegetables on the sidewalk in order to get some money to buy medicine for his wife. For this reason, he received a slap across the face from a young chengguan who happened to be passing by. In July 2011, a veteran of the Vietnam War was reportedly strangled to death by a chengguan for selling fruit on the street. Both incidents caused a huge amount of anger from the netizens, and many people in China consider chengguans to be no better than gangs of criminals. Chengguans are so notorious that one even appears as a villain in Grand Theft Auto IV, an internationally popular video game. The character eats a hotdog in a park, then kills the vendor after he’s done.

Hatred of chengguan is obviously nothing new. But in the age of Weibo, average citizens are reacting with increased vigor as each fresh case of abuse emerges. The beating of the female peddler on July 10 first appeared on Weibo within an hour after the incident transpired. Not only was the reporting timely, it was also extremely convincing, as bystanders, victims, and friends of the victim’s family all stood out and told their side of the story while providing pictures from the actual scene.

As citizens speak out, often tagging the accounts of government organs and media outlets, authorities can no longer plausibly deny knowledge of such violent incidents. But in this case, despite the outrage and demand for action, the relevant departments haven’t yet responded; instead, many Weibo posts on this topic have been deleted. It makes one wonder how angry netizens will have to get, and how much more damage chengguan will have to visit upon small-time vendors, before the powers that be find online voices too loud to ignore. 

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A Cappella

A Cappella was born in China, but she spent her formative years between China, Canada, and the U.S. As a recent graduate of Yale, A Cappella is excited to return to China to work upon graduation, and she looks forward to exploring the changing landscape of China’s society and economy.