China’s “Urban Enforcers” Caught in a Vicious Cycle

Last week, another anecdote about chengguan— China’s urban enforcers whose main tasks include enforcing urban beautification ordinances and cracking down on unlicensed street vendors— caught the public’s attention. On June 15, a web user called @岔巴子 revealed on Tencent Weibo that an urban enforcer in Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei, spent his leisure time running an unlicensed street stall in the evening and uploaded a couple of photos as evidence. In the tweet, the Weibo user questioned why an urban enforcer, later revealed to be named Gui Wenjing, knowingly involved himself in an activity which it is his duty to prevent. According to the Wuhan Morning Post, netizens viewed the tweet more than 20,000 times within twelve hours, mostly condemning what they saw as hypocrisy.

In fact, the urban enforcer’s double life was part of a planned experiment coordinated by the Urban Law Enforcement Bureau of Wuhan’s Hongshan district. During an interview with China National Radio on June 18, the Bureau Chief said the experiment was intended to deepen urban enforcers’ understanding of street vendors’ lives. “Experiencers” kept daily journals which were then circulated within the bureau. The purpose was to make law enforcement more humane in the future. On the same day as the Bureau Chief’s interview, the two urban enforcers who had conducted the experiment held a press conference to discuss their adventures. They said the experiment had been ongoing for thirty-three days, and all the profits made from their street vending was donated to a street vendor in need of financial help.

Actually, the experiment was one of a number of innovative measures that Wuhan took to pioneer the reform of the chengguan system. In March 2013, Wuhan became the first city in China to issue systematic regulation of urban administration and law enforcement. On June 23, the Xinhua News Agency reported that the city intended to single out the ten worst urban enforcers annually, and fire those with records of severe misconduct. Together, these efforts aim to prevent the online scandals that sometimes arise from inhumane enforcement, and to facilitate a more positive public image.

Chengguan have long been regarded as a hotbed for abuse. Since the turn of the century, several high-profile cases have arisen in which chengguan allegedly used physical violence against street vendors. On May 31, a video went viral showing urban enforcers in Yan’an City, Shaanxi province stamping on the head of a street vendor. It is not an exaggeration to say that among all Chinese governmental entities, the chengguan system has the worst public image and the least legitimacy.

But it is unfair to attribute the chengguan’s legitimacy crisis to the organ itself. Since its inception in 1998, there has been no systematic, nationwide law or regulation that designates its duties, specifies its administrative procedures, or limits its power. Meanwhile, the list of daily tasks that chengguan are charged with has become increasingly convoluted, chaotic, and infeasible. In an interview with the Beijing Evening News, one urban enforcer complained that other government organs throw to chengguan any administrative task they cannot handle themselves.

What’s worse, no central bureau is responsible for supervising, evaluating, and monitoring the performance of chengguan. Because of their social stigma, even chengguan’s regular and legitimate administrative activities are interpreted in the worst light. In recent years, street vendors have increasingly employed violence to resist chengguan actions, yet the general public rarely showed sympathy to the enforcers on the receiving end of the violence.

This malignant cycle engenders a worsening relationship between chengguan and the public, making it more difficult for urban enforcers to carry out their legitimate duties free of harassment. With such a deeply-rooted institutional deadlock lying in the background, it is unlikely Wuhan can stop the vicious cycle alone.