Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: China’s Para-Policetags: China, Dissent, Maura Cunningham, parapolice, Shanghai
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a PhD candidate in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine.
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.
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