China’s coming social explosion

Within a single week in China, a man in a wheelchair at Beijing International Airport ignited a small explosion and a street vendor died at the hands of urban management agents. The two events were completely independent of each other yet they are deeply related: illustrations of the social reality for those living on the margin of Chinese society.

On July 17, Deng Zhengjia, a 56-year old unlicensed vendor selling watermelon on the street of Linwu, Hunan Province, was beaten to death by China’s notorious urban management officers (or chengguan, as they are known) who have, since 1997, a long history of bullying, detaining and arbitrarily fining street vendors. An outcry followed quickly on social media, and, under pressure, the local government announced the detention of six officers involved in the incident.

The intimidation and physical violence would have more typically gone unnoticed, because it happens so often and those under assault are usually voiceless.

Such was the case of a disabled man in a wheelchair who set off a homemade explosive at the arrival gate of Beijing airport on 20 July. He was reportedly distributing leaflets detailing his case before igniting the bomb as security guards approached him. China’s social media users soon tracked down a blog that revealed his back story. The man was identified as 34-year old Ji Zhongxing from Shandong Province, someone who worked as an unlicensed motorcycle driver in the industrial city of Dongguan, Guangdong Province. He, too, had been beaten severely by chengguan in a 2005 attack that left him paralysed. Since then, he petitioned for justice and compensation but his case had not been adequately addressed 8 years after the incident.

More details of both incidents will surely emerge in the coming days. But the stories are familiar enough, and the heavy-handed policing are not at all random. It is directed at workers, especially internal rural migrant workers. In a blog entry prior to the incident, Ji wrote of the discrimination and desperation facing him:

Because we are farmers, and are poor, no matter who we turn to, nobody wants to help us. And what’s more, when the chengguan found us, they turned around and called us tramps and beat us … [w]e looked to the sky, and the sky looked away; we called to the earth, and the earth did not respond. We have been forsaken but have nobody to turn to…  [t]he only thing that’s keeping me going is the thought of seeking justice.

The two incidents symbolise the great injustice suffered by migrant workers and the desperation many of them feel.

In 2012, the Human Rights Watch published a report, ‘Beat Him, Take Everything Away’: Abuses by China’s Chengguan Para-Police, which collected ‘more than 150 cases of chengguan abuses reported in Chinese national and local media between July 2010 and March 2012’, in which victims were ‘slapped, shoved, pushed to the ground, forcibly held down on the ground, dragged, punched, kicked, and thrown from their vehicles to the street.’

Many, many more unreported cases would have taken place during the same period. It is common in Chinese cities to witness street vendors running away at the prospect or the sight of chengguan cars.

Some serious incidents in the past have sparked riots. One well-known case is the beating of a pregnant vendor by chengguan in Guangdong Province in June 2011. In the following days, hundreds of migrant workers took to the street and burned police and fire vehicles. Police were dispatched to restore order and arrest dozens of protestors. The following month, another riot broke out over the beating to death of a disabled vendor by chengguan in Guizhou Province.

The Chinese authority does recognise public complaints about chengguan including calls to close them down. A People’s Daily article, published the day before the watermelon vendor’s death, writes,

It is not surprising to know that street vendors, who have been at the receiving end of urban management rules, detest chengguan. But it is surprising to see the public, which has benefited from urban management regulations, to oppose chengguan. Perhaps this is the result of the violent and at times brutal law enforcement methods of chengguan and people’s sympathy with the underprivileged group of vendors … [i]t will help if chengguan are more humane in how they deal with street vendors.

But this is not simply abuse of power, or a matter of chengguan being more humane. At its heart is the deeply entrenched and institutionalised treatment of migrants as second-class citizens. Their second-class status is built into China’s urban/rural division and into a labour system that maintains low cost labour by denying migrants both labour and urban resident rights.

Public opinion has long been sympathetic to migrant workers facing discrimination. Opposition can be traced back to the death of a 27-year-old migrant and college graduate, Sun Zhigang, exactly ten years ago in 2003. He was detained and died in police custody in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province after failing to produce the temporary living permit required of internal migrants.

The public outcry that followed forced the government to abolish the system of custody and repatriation designed for detaining those without resident permits. While that repeal constituted progress, it avoided the underlying systematic discrimination of internal rural migrants embedded in the residential registration system (or Hukou).

In 2010, just before the annual meeting of China’s legislative body, a joint editorial in thirteen metropolitan newspapers from eleven provinces called for the government to abolish the Hukou system, claiming that it was unconstitutional and a violation of human rights. The editorial disappeared from the newspapers’ website the following day and one of its co-author, a senior editor, was fired. But the public opposition has not stopped, as the social media discussion of the death of the street vendor demonstrated. In fact, public indignation has been driving changes.

As the Chinese government plans to push further urbanisation as a new engine of economic growth, the treatment of new migrants to the cities will be critical. On his microblog, one state newspaper editor has asked, after observing latest cases where frustrated victims of abuse turned to violence, ‘For whom the bell tolls?’

Kevin Lin

Kevin Lin is a PhD candiate at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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