CHINA - They are China's appointed guardians of urban order.
Their mission, from clearing streets of unruly vendors to cracking down on unhygienic street food, would conceivably make them very popular with city folk. Yet, they are being lambasted across China as a "deformed organisation", "paid thugs of (official) power", even "social scum".
Meet the chengguan, short for "Urban Management Law Enforcement" officers.
Over the past two weeks, they have made national headlines after a series of violent incidents which have even prompted calls by some scholars, lawyers and netizens for them to be abolished.
Set up in 1997 by local authorities, their broad scope of work and power allows them to enforce laws to maintain social order, although they are not part of the police or public security apparatus.
Hired by city governments through a civil service recruitment process, they deal with myriad sensitive tasks outsourced from a slew of departments. These include the health authorities, public commerce bureau and environmental agencies.
In fact, a gang of chengguan were even bold enough to beat up a policeman with his own baton, causing head injuries last Thursday in Qinghai province.
The cop was reportedly investigating an emergency call that the chengguan had assaulted residents resisting their efforts to clear a site for demolition.
In a separate incident on Friday, Beijing netizens posted a video of a nine-year-old girl tearfully begging a group of chengguan to stop beating her father.
She had set up a roadside stationery stall to gain practical experience, accompanied by her father, who is a deputy editor-in-chief of a Beijing magazine, reported The Beijing News. They put up a written sign to ask the "chengguan uncles" to condone their little summer project.
But the officers seized her items and hit her father.
These two clashes - the latest in a slew of incidents including the alleged murder on July 18 of a watermelon seller in southern Hunan province - have sparked fresh public ire and scepticism about the chengguan's social role.
"Chengguan handle inconvenient, tiring, even dangerous work outside the office that the local government agencies do not want to do," said Peking University law professor Wang Xixin.
These officers typically make up a minuscule part of a city's population. So a large city of 20-odd million like Beijing has a few thousand chengguan.
But this tiny force punches above its weight. After all, chengguan often find persuasion, fines and even confiscation of property insufficient to enforce the rules, especially since many offenders use force themselves.
Still, while the public acknowledges the officers need to be tough to do their jobs, many are turned off by the way some officers allegedly abuse their authority, and even act as thugs for corrupt local officials or take bribes, according to some local media.
The "protection money" rate paid by beggars to chengguan in one Shanghai district was 3,000 yuan (S$620) a month, according to the local Jiefang Daily.
Legal experts such as Guangdong-based lawyer Sui Muqing are now calling for chengguan to be abolished. And proposals made early this year by academics like Tongji University professor Cai Jianguo to improve chengguan legislation are also gaining traction.
Almost 75 per cent of over 10,000 people polled by the China Youth Daily social studies centre last week support new laws to specify the force's powers. Still, the chengguan must stay put, state media insists.
The People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, ran a commentary declaring that "there is no doubt that the introduction of chengguan has made urban management more efficient and solved many a problem".
"It is surprising to see the public, which has benefited from urban management regulations, oppose (them)," it added.
The root of the problem does not lie in the chengguan system, argued Prof Wang.
"We need to change local city governments' urban planning and management mindsets," he said.
By providing more legalised space for migrant workers and new residents to earn a living by hawking their street wares and easing licence applications, local officials can make it easier for chengguan to do their jobs.
"These changes need to start within the offices and thinking of city officials, not just altering chengguan's behaviour."
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