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Young Family’s Arrest Brings Tension Between Vendors and Police into Focus

A one-and-a-half-year-old girl wraps her arms around her mother’s neck, crying. Her mother, handcuffed, cannot hug her back—she can only squat down beside the police car to match her daughter’s height. “I’m sorry, mommy can’t hold you…”

On March 6, 2013, one Chinese female street fruit vendor, along with her husband and daughter, were arrested in Haizhu, a district in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou. They were released after a 24-hour detention.

According to public statements by the city management bureau, officers from the bureau—referred to in Chinese as chengguan—warned the merchant, who remains unnamed, that street vending is illegal and ordered her to leave. Though the woman replied that she would leave after completing one last transaction, she continued to sell fruit. When the chengguan ordered her to stop, she began showering curses and abuse upon the chengguan and attacking them. Her husband, who later arrived at the scene, also joined the skirmish.

After scuffling, the chengguan grabbed the vendor by her neck, handcuffed her, and led her to the local police station.

Mommy, Don’t Go!

The violence and cruelty inflicted upon the vendor’s one-and-a-half-year-old daughter shocked Chinese Web users on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. Many protested that the police had no reason to detain the daughter and deplored the harsh treatment she received. “During the 24-hour detention, the police forbade anyone from even changing the one-and-a-half-year-old girl’s diaper,” reported Kai-Fu Lee (@李开复), a prominent investor and social commentator. “The key point is that the kid is completely innocent!” wrote @增肥威猪.

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An on-the-scene image of the arrested mother and her child, top, and a cartoon depicting the mother sympathetically, bottom. The Chinese reads, “Child, mama has no way to hug you.”

What angered many Web users the most, however, is the psychological trauma the little girl suffered. Some insisted on the need for more humane management methods: “When I saw that last photo [of the daughter hugging her mother], I couldn’t stop my tears from falling…we need law and order, but we also need humanity,” commented @gogoRebecca.

Others, who recognize the need to regulate peddlers, called for a much simpler approach—cover children’s eyes.

“Regardless of whether or not the peddler has violated regulations, chengguan should not have strangled the peddler or demonstrated their power in front of a small, weak child,” wrote @名家评说.

“Although peddlers have difficult lives, it is also undeniable that their illegal businesses affect social order. The lack of humanity in society that the photos depict is also an undeniable fact—especially in front of small kids! Even if we need to execute criminals, we cannot do so in front of children. This is the most important point,” argued @炯john.

Recently, cases of innocent children being exposed to gruesome aspects of society have plagued China: in 2011, two-year-old Yue Yue died after being run over twice and ignored by eighteen passersby, and earlier this week, a two-month old infant named Haobo was strangled to death by a car thief. Perhaps Chinese users responded in uproar to this incident because they view it as part of a disturbing series.

A “Cleaner” China

Crackdown on illegal street vendors peaked before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when the government sought to present to the world a clean, civilized, and developed China. This process of “sanitization” of the city continued even after the Olympics concluded, at times sparking violent confrontations.

Many of the illegal street vendors are poor migrant workers who, because of unemployment and low wages, are forced to peddle to make ends meet. In 2011, a clash between chengguan and migrant street vendors in Xintang, Guangzhou sparked a protest, which gathered the support of other migrant workers.

Some observers wonder whether chengguan target peddlers not necessarily because they engage in illegal activities, but because they are migrant workers who often have little means of protecting themselves and therefore make easy targets. Some city residents regard migrants as an eyesore.

The Weibo Blame Game

Street vendors—who sell anything from chuanr (roasted meat on skewers) and stuffed buns to DVDs and jade bracelets—are, however, a vibrant part of Chinese city life. They sell various household items at affordable prices, and cater to the needs of many local residents. Many Chinese Web users argue that peddlers make their lives more convenient and accuse chengguan of abusing their powers during crackdowns.

In the case in Haizhu district, however, the blame seems harder to pin. The “out-of-control” female peddler pushed, hit, and kicked the city management officers, and was about to pick up a fruit knife when the officers called the police. Her husband also attacked police officers and vandalized their car.

Some Chinese Web users maintained a neutral position regarding this incident. “The chengguan politely told the woman to leave. Not only did she not leave, she also cursed, hit, and called up her husband to help her stir up trouble. It is true that we have to sympathize with those in weak positions, but we also have to judge each case according to circumstances. If the officers didn’t stop her, then who would have done so?” asked @88湘湘.

Other users took sides. Some denounced the city management, deploring it for incompetence and violence: “All this happened because the chengguan has no way of implementing civilized measures. The reason why they cannot make the people comply with them through talking is because the people are all disappointed in them,” wrote @小叶同学要奋斗.

“They don’t capture the people they should be capturing, and they use all their energy to capture those who shouldn’t be captured. A few big guys pressing against one weak, delicate woman—what is this!” wrote @圆圆Queenie.

Some took the opposite stance, defending the city management and dismissing the street vendors as threats to social order. “Actually, many city-management officers are very good…we can’t only require city-management officers to be civil. If peddlers are being unreasonable, what can you do?” asked @告诉你也没用.

“It’s getting warm and the number of peddlers around my complex is increasing again. The roads are already narrow; every time a car comes the roads become blocked. After they finish selling breakfast, they throw garbage and sewage everywhere. The smoke from the chuanr is unbearable. They are so disorderly—such a disturbance! Someone must regulate them,” complained @guardaisy.

Chengguan or Peddlers—Who is the Victim?

Web users’ ambivalence toward the incident perhaps stems from the controversial positions chengguan and peddlers occupy in Chinese society. Though Chinese citizens often view chengguan as aggressors, street vendors resort to violence as well, as shown by the 2009 case in Shenzhen, Guangzhou where a street vendor stabbed a chengguan officer to death.

Or perhaps it reflects a shift in public opinions about the position of illegal peddlers and the role of chengguan in maintaining social order. As one anonymous chengguan purportedly wrote, “Our job is to deal with society’s most vulnerable citizens and squeeze them further; conflict is inevitable…[but] the vulnerable are not necessarily innocent. The sympathy these illegal vendors get has, to some extent, made the vulnerable privileged while we chengguan have become the humblest of the humble.”

Chinese society, it seems, must re-evaluate stereotypes surrounding chengguan and street vendors. As one columnist wrote in the Minxi Times, a Fujian Province newspaper: “Even when suffering curses and abuse, [chengguan] must restrain himself not to curse back, not to hit back…all this is for the sake of the city…Don’t they deserve more sympathy than these illegal street vendors we call ‘marginalized’ groups?”

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Media, Society