Here come the chengguan

16:51, July 20, 2010      

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The soft summer breeze stirred the cool night air as I walked to a bus stop near the west gate of Renmin University. I had a sense of contentment that gave way to a sudden urge to buy some fruit from a street vendor.

On a normal night the street would be buzzing with peddlers selling everything from shoestrings to fruit. But tonight none were to be seen. It was quiet, a little bit too quiet. The weather was perfect so where were they? The answer came in the most unusual way.

From behind me I heard the sound of struggling engines. It wasn't the kind powerful roar you might expect from a race car, but rather the sound of a small engine getting pushed to its breaking point.

I turned to find the source of the unsettling sound and saw three small trucks, their beds filled to the brim with fruit, barreling down the road toward me. An older woman barking orders to the driver clung to the side of one of the trucks. I watched in amazement as they swerved through traffic. They seemed to be running for their lives. I felt like I was in the middle of a movie.

But they had a good reason to be zooming down the street. In hot

pursuit was a large van filled with chengguan (urban management and security officers). In a matter of seconds they had zoomed past me into an intersection.

The fruit peddlers cleverly peeled off in different directions, forcing the chengguan van to continue after only one vendor. Past the intersection, traffic thickened, forcing the chunky chengguan van to pull over and give up pursuit as the fruit truck continued to squeeze through traffic. I was a little disappointed with the end of the first car chase I saw in China.

But my experience is more than just a funny story to tell friends, it is a perfect example of the battles that rage across Beijing every day between its peddlers and urban management and security officers. Chengguan are charged with the duty to keep city ordinances, but most of the time that boils down to one main focus - harassing street vendors without proper licenses.

Given that reality, it is no wonder street vendors loathe the chengguan and are constantly engaged in a game of cat and mouse with them.

But the severity of the game all depends on the chengguan themselves. Sometimes they act like over-aggressive thugs. Sometimes they act like they don't have a care in the world. I have personally seen both extremes.

Last Valentine's Day I was coming out of the Xidan subway station when I witnessed a woman trying to sell roses being dragged off to a waiting van by several chengguan. I felt sorry for the woman, she wasn't trying to cause any trouble, she was just trying to make a little bit of money selling roses to lovers on Valentine's Day.

In contrast, a few weeks ago I exited a subway station on line 13 only to see a group of chengguan napping in their van a few feet away from a small throng of street vendors.

In all fairness not all chengguan are bad apples, but in many cases their bad reputation is warranted.

Whenever they arrive with harsh intent, street vendors are sure to go frantically scurrying.

In ancient China there was a saying that a husband's wife and his mother were born enemies. In Beijing today you could well replace the saying with one that chengguan and street peddlers are born enemies.

But with such inconsistency and a lack of respect from the general public it is amazing that more efforts haven't been made to reform the ranks of chengguan.

One change I think is needed is that chengguan should never resort to physical measures to accomplish their job. They are not properly trained to handle physical confrontations and their position does not carry the status needed for someone to heed the warning of a physical confrontation if their orders are not obeyed.

Putting it another way, people are more willing to fight back against the chengguan than they are willing to fight back against the police.

So why are chengguan even getting physical? If vendors are truly breaking the law and refusing orders then call in trained police to deal with them.

Senseless scuffles and chasing people down the streets haven't solved anything for Beijing, but it has given the city a new set of problems to deal.

Simply put the only thing a chengguan should be armed with is more common sense and a fine book.

Source: China Daily(By Joseph Christian)


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