Last week, a 56 year-old farmer named Deng Zhengjie and his wife arrived in the town of Linwu, Hunan Province, in order to sell watermelon they had grown on their farm. Within a few hours, the municipal police approached them and asked them to move to a designated vendor area. The couple complied. But later, according to eyewitnesses, a scuffle broke out between Deng, his wife, and the police. Multiple policemen began beating the couple, eventually leaving them for dead. Deng's wife survived the attack. Deng did not.
The incident, which sparked outrage throughout the country, was merely the latest violent act attributed to the chengguan, who are China's widely loathed municipal police. Separate from conventional police forces, the chengguan are responsible for managing more quotidian aspects of urban life, such as regulating street vendors and unlicensed construction sites. The chengguan system was established recently, in 1997, and appear to operate with little oversight. As a result, stories of chengguan brutality are common -- According to Human Rights Watch, Chinese media reported more than 150 incidences of violence involving the chengguan between 2010 and 2012.
Police brutality exists in every society, but the case of the chengguan is a particularly Chinese phenomenon -- a byproduct of the country's seismic economic changes over the past three decades. The influx of hundreds of millions of rural Chinese into the country's towns and cities, attracted by the multiplying opportunities, greatly expanded China's informal economy and created a legal gray zone that the chengguan, among others, now occupy. While China's prosperity has minted millions of winners, many more continue to struggle along the margins: people typified by rural pushcart vendors, workers on illegal construction sites, and apartment dwellers whose homes are slated for demolition. In other words, the sort of people who can least afford sudden misfortune -- and exactly the sort who have the most to fear from the prying chengguan.
Problems with China's municipal police are not new, but technology -- in particular the spread of social media -- has brought the chengguan issue into the open. People frequently post video evidence of chengguan brutality on social media sites like Sina Weibo, fomenting a nationwide sense of outrage that had, until recently, been strictly localized. Li Chengpeng, one of China's most outspoken public intellectuals, wrote a poignant essay (translated by occasional Atlantic contributor Helen Gao in the Telegraph) identifying Deng Zhenjie as a symbol of the "Chinese dream": precisely the sort of man who epitomizes the Horatio Alger-ism of President Xi Jinping's signature slogan. How ironic, then, that Deng's death, officially (and absurdly) explained away by him "unexpectedly falling to the ground and dying," came at the hands of the government who seeks to nurture the ambitions of people just like him.
Small-scale investigations of chengguan violence does occur in China, but as of yet there have been little effort to reform the system as a whole. In the days following the Deng Zhenjie incident, the Chinese media published articles in praise of the system, with the People's Daily even going so far as to reminding the public that being a chengguan remains an "alluring job."
Will the Chinese public buy the Party line? Time will tell, but the early indications aren't good. When this weekend a wheelchair-bound man blew himself up at the Beijing Airport, apparently in protest of police brutality, he attracted much sympathy (alongside criticism) throughout the country. In a widely circulated article on the bombing in Caixin, one of China's leading business journals, reporter Luo Jieqi wrote that peasants who once formed the backbone of Communist China -- the life force of Mao Zedong's great revolution -- now live lives of increasing desperation. Quite naturally, unable to find legal justice for their grievances, some decide they have nothing left to live for -- an idea that, for a government obsessed with harmony and stability, cannot be easily dismissed.