Last week, another anecdote about chengguan - China's urban enforcers whose main tasks include enforcing urban beautification ordinances and cracking down on unlicensed street vendors -- caught the public's attention. On June 15, a web user called @岔巴子 revealed on Tencent Weibo that an urban enforcer in Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei, spent his leisure time running an unlicensed street stall in the evening and uploaded a couple of photos as evidence. In the tweet, the Weibo user questioned why an urban enforcer, later revealed to be named Gui Wenjing, knowingly involved himself in an activity which is his duty to prevent. According to the Wuhan Morning Post, netizens viewed the tweet more than 20,000 times within twelve hours, mostly condemning what they saw as hypocrisy.
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But it is unfair to attribute the chengguan's legitimacy crisis to the organization itself. 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 unfeasible. 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.
This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.