It’s not easy being a city management official in China. The low-level law enforcement officers known as chengguan have a less-than-sterling reputation thanks to scuffles with street peddlers, some of which have resulted in death. But a new initiative from the central government is hoping to change that by asking the public for suggestions on how the force should operate.
The government is seeking input ahead of drafting legislation on city management law enforcement that will set a national standard for how chengguan do their jobs. Throughout China, the officers are tasked with enforcing low-level city rules, and one of the most common tasks is clearing streets of illegal vendors. But the scope of chengguan work can vary from city to city. By law, issuing punishments for motor vehicle parking violations falls under the remit of traffic police, but in practice this responsibility falls to chengguan in some cities, such as Ningbo in eastern China’s Zhejiang province.
Also up for debate in the legislative process is whether chengguan should be able to issue penalties for pollution-related offenses like setting off fireworks and dumping trash, and offenses relating to housing and construction. Citizens can submit their ideas through the website of the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council, China’s cabinet. Last year 98,200 suggestions were submitted to the site.
The new law could potentially expand the powers of China’s city management officials at a time when the public still has doubts about the ability of chengguan to exercise their authority fairly. Only last month, a city management official in the central province of Henan was stabbed to death by a street vendor, allegedly after a fight between the officer and the vendor’s wife. The incident once again ignited debate about whether chengguan in China’s towns and cities use excessive force.
But to their credit, chengguan are waking up to the need for transparency. In June, city management officials in the capital of central China’s Henan province live-broadcasted their work for a night in a bid to improve accountability and public relations — a move which drew criticism for potentially infringing on citizens’ rights to privacy.
The southern city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, may have found a less contentious solution to their troubles: lawyers who tag along on chengguan patrols. They observe the teams at work and provide advice on how the city management officials can resolve disputes lawfully, without using undue force.
Lawyers first started accompanying the chengguan force in Shahe District in 2014, but now almost 90 percent of city management teams in Shenzhen have a lawyer who joins them on patrols. Each lawyer is expected to serve as a neutral mediator between the chengguan team and street vendors — although some question whether a lawyer who is embedded within the force can maintain objectivity.
Feng Zengjun, leader of the Shenzhen City Management Supervision Team, thinks so. “Lawyers have basic professional principles: Every case will have to stand up to judicial scrutiny,” he told The Beijing News.
With contributions from Dong Heng.
(Header image: A line of ‘chengguan’ stand in front of vendors illegally operating on sidewalks in Wuhan, Hubei province, Sept. 19, 2012. This particular law enforcement approach is called ‘liedui zhifa,’ or lining up and glaring at the offenders. Long Fei/VCG)