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In China, Defending Grandma From The Heavy Hand Of The State

Standing up to the chengguan
Standing up to the chengguan
Tao Shun

BEIJING — A few days ago, somebody posted a video taken somewhere on a street in China. It could be almost anywhere. The video showed a little boy defending his grandma, a street vendor, and brandishing a steel pipe against the local "chengguan," agents of the Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau.

The chubby little boy, who looks about three years old, was apparently not at all intimidated by the chengguan who were trying to confiscate his grandma's stall and goods. He even shouted: "Don't touch my grandma! Don't bully my grandma!"

The video quickly went viral all over China, with the vast majority of people applauding the boy's courage. What impressed people is the reversed showdown of strength — a toddler who no longer looks sweet, but tough and assertive, while the chengguan's typical aggressive image is replaced by surprising body language of concession and tolerance.

I watched this surreal drama several times on my computer, struck by the boy's bravery, but also feeling increasingly bitter. Sadly, the Chinese Internet does not lack for stories about the chengguan and their heavy-handed tactics.

Just this week alone, two other incidents involving these urban management agents beating up street vendors circulated widely online. The first one, which took place in the southwestern city of Kunming, involved a group of chengguan armed with sticks and shields. They kicked and beat a man so seriously he ended up lying on the ground bleeding. The second showed a chengguan agent tearing off a street vendor's clothes, leaving the woman virtually naked, and sitting on top of her shouting that he was going to kill her.

Though in both cases it was said that these vendors provoked the fight, it must be said that when law enforcement officers behave like gangsters, there is definitely something wrong. Bluntly said, it's no longer news anymore that the chengguan use violence. Chinese citizens have seen so much of this, they simply feel helpless. Only if a chengguan is attacked does it become news, as happened in 2014 in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, where a chengguan agent was caught by a huge mob of people after he had beaten somebody.

The goal of this article isn't to criticize the chengguan's uncivilized way of enforcing the law. Whether this urban management unit should be stripped of its arms, or simply dissolved all together, is an open question for public policy debate. Instead, it would be worth viewing the situation through the innocent eyes of children or the cloudy eyes of the elderly.

A school teacher once gave an assignment asking sixth grade students to write essays about "Uncle Chengguan" as seen through their eyes.

"In the face of those vendors who are in despair, seeing their goods confiscated, Uncle Chengguan should give them a warning instead of using force," one student wrote. "Beloved chengguan, you ought to know that, in this world, lots of people resort to street vending because they have no money," another said. "Although I appreciate that you make the streets tidier and easier to walk on, I do not support the measures you take," a third student wrote.

Those same chengguan have children and grandmothers of their own. The civilized enforcement of law is ultimately about empathy. The existing approach of urban management is therefore open to question.

A Beijing chengguan once told a newspaper that he gave up seizing a woman street vendor's stall because he couldn't bear watching the expression in the eyes of that woman's child. He said he wanted the child to see the human side of the law. Indeed, if a toddler knows enough to come forward to protect his grandma, we should all feel ashamed for this behavior, which too many of us, sadly, have come to expect.

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