The uneven hand of the law

A few days ago on Nanjing Xi Lu, a very main tourist and shopping street in Shanghai, we saw a yelling and shoving match break out. A group of uniformed officials swooped down on the merchants who had laid out their blankets on the sidewalk to sell "Tibetan" jewelry, stone or wooden carvings, and similar little wares. The officials grabbed the goods and stuffed them into big bags with official markings on them. The team we saw was headed by an ominous-looking character, a tall, well-muscled young guy in plainclothes who wore sunglasses and a walkie-talkie with earpiece, Secret Service-style.

Half of the vendors, who had been regulars in the area, were beaten-down, aged-peasant types, who in reality are probably about 45 years old but who look 90. The others appeared to be in their 20s and also look like peasants or at least school dropouts. The old ones meekly gave in, and either trudged away or were put in the back of police vans. Some of the young ones yelled at the officials or stood in front of their vans to block them. One furious young man tried to take swings at the officials before friends held him back.

A couple of other streets that had previously been full of hawkers have recently been cleaned out too. What on earth is this?

Presumably not an anti-counterfeiting sweep, considering that pirate-video stands and fake-watch vendors keep on operating a few yards away. And not a comprehensive anti-public-nuisance campaign, considering that the shoe-shine squeegee men are still there in force. As best I can judge from news reports like this and this and this, it's probably a crackdown by the chengguan, 城管, or "urban management" squad from the city government. The enforcement is ostensibly meant to keep the streets and sidewalks clear, and is aimed only at unlicensed vendors, as if they were the main threat to public order in the cities. (Hmmmm, here's a thought: maybe this surplus law-enforcement manpower could spared from the crusade against the vendors and instead be used to enforce the traffic laws..... No, sorry, just a crazy dream.)

In the cities the raw hand of the state mainly shows itself when neighborhood after neighborhood is bulldozed to make way for new buildings. These scuffles on the sidewalk are another reminder of what state power looks like.

Update: Just now saw an apple-cheeked woman in Tibetan gear, with her little blanket covered by trinkets spread out on the sidewalk along Nanjing Xi Lu. Be careful!, xiaoxin!, I thought of muttering as I went by. But what would have been the point?