Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:41 AM CST – China


Urban Management Officers

Mean Streets

The chengguan system has become the most visible symptom of a deep-rooted problem in China’s cities

Over 140 chengguan from Henan Province undergo drills, August 24, 2012 Photo by CFP

Urbanization and the growing income gap has left increasing numbers of street hawkers fearful of persecution Photo by Wu Fang

Every time urban management officers (chengguan) end up in the news, Chinese people fear the worst. This summer, scandals and violent clashes involving chengguan have occurred with unprecedented frequency.

The rapid growth of the Internet has served to make chengguan a target of abuse, both online and on the streets. Perhaps the most visible example of unchecked government power, the chengguan tend to provoke vicious public criticism.

Yet chengguan, often uneducated and with fragile job security, tend to deal with trivial matters, carrying out arguably the most tedious of all government jobs. The majority of entry-level chengguan are not contracted civil servants, but “temporary employees,” who earn a pittance and can be fired at any time. When enforcing regulations, chengguan often encounter violent resistance, and have no legally sanctioned means of protecting themselves.

The legality of the chengguan has been in question for many years, yet rapid urbanization has forced China’s authorities to allow chengguan power to expand significantly – officers now carry out a wide range of responsibilities. Their power is granted by local governments, meaning they are largely subject to local government interests, and the  social conflicts they cause present a serious challenge to urban management in today’s China.

Comprehensive Enforcement

In May 1997, China’s first urban management unit was established in Beijing’s Xuanwu Disctrict. As China’s reforms carried on into the late 1990s, Chinese society moved into a phase of accelerated urbanization. The household registration (hukou) system was relaxed, and a great number of rural people flooded into the cities. In the meantime, State-owned enterprises were being reformed, and their workers were laid off in droves. Numbers of urban poor grew rapidly.

Social safety nets were far from well established, but large number of grassroots people found opportunity in China’s rapidly growing markets, and many chose to become street hawkers. Official data show that in 1996 alone, there were more than 1,000 street markets in Beijing.

The sudden growth in numbers of nomadic street vendors began to cause worry among China’s city managers. Dealing with the problem was technically the responsibility of multiple separate administrative departments, including those of industry and commerce, health, transportation, and the police. Law enforcement had to be coordinated between these departments, but this was grossly mismanaged. Departments often meted out multiple punishments for the same offence, or shirked responsibility altogether.

The Xuanwu chengguan unit, the first of its kind, was intended to be a concentrated group of law enforcement personnel, but the only concrete legal justification for the unit’s existence is from the Law on Administrative Punishments promulgated in 1996, which allows the State Council (or local governments authorized by the State Council) to designate an administrative organ to mete out punishments on the authority of other administrative organs.

As Xuanwu’s chengguan assumed the power to penalize street vendors, other cities around the country soon adopted the model and set up their own urban management departments. The trend caught on, and the country saw a boom in chengguan bureaus nationwide.

City Blueprints

“The chengguan are a product of urbanization,” said Professor Guo Weiqing of the Administrative Management Research Center at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-Sen University. Statistics show that the urbanization rate increased from 30.5 percent in 1996 to 51.3 percent in 2011, and that there are now about 650 cities and nearly 3,000 urban counties in China.

“In areas such as the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas, huge numbers of rural laborers have migrated to cities,” said Guo.

In Guo’s opinion, rural labor forces have created prosperity in cities, but have also made urban management more difficult. City management officials are under pressure to appear modern, and the chengguan serve a visible, expedient purpose.

“The main responsibilities of chengguan include the enforcement of sanitation laws, parking inspection, and meting out punishments for uncertified construction and illegal use of public areas,” said Professor Yuan Defeng of the School of Humanities at the Beijing Institute of Petrochemical Technology. “However, there are frequent conflicts during enforcement, and chengguan are failing to leave the public with a good impression.”

According to a survey of over 10,000 people conducted by the Social Investigation Center of the China Youth Daily newspaper, 40.7 percent responded that chengguan were “bad” and “a symbol of violent law enforcement,” while only 25.7 percent said that chengguan were “OK.”

The urban management system also threatens the livelihoods of those who survive by hawking goods in the street. The chengguan’s attempts to shoo away hawkers spark frequent clashes, but China’s city streets have proven to be a lucrative marketplace for low-cost goods.

“After establishing the city management system, city governors focused on clearing out and controlling vendors. They did not consider how to absorb newcomers into the city,” said Guo. “When this group of newcomers reaches a certain threshold, it takes more than a simple clearout to deal with them.”

Guo believed the problem can be traced back to the “urbanization blueprint” followed by many city planners.

“The philosophy of city planners is too idealistic. All they want is a clean and tidy city that excludes outsiders. They are either influenced by systems of the planned economy era, or by impressions gleaned from short-term visits to Western cities,” said Guo. “Also, highly concentrated power is more effective when managing changing social conditions and an increasingly mobile population. Therefore, planners resort to this method under all circumstances.”

City Housekeepers

In the early 2000s, urbanization in China sped up once again, and city management inspectors were endowed with greater responsibilities, including clearing away street vendors, management of public advertisement boards, and reporting illegal construction. Urban management has become a broad enterprise.

The number of officers on the books has also mushroomed. This June, after a scandal caused by leaked video footage of chengguan in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province stamping on the head of a street vendor, it came to light that the Yan’an Urban Management Department was housed in a building over 30 stories high. Official data show that this city of two million people employs no fewer than 3,200 chengguan officers.

Since the chengguan system was established, the power wielded by its officers has been insufficiently supervised. While legislation dealing with urban management has been in the pipeline for many years, it has stalled for the past few. There is currently no law that defines the legal status of the chengguan, nor one that sets their code of conduct.

This local characteristic has further complicated the framework of urban management and the supervision of departments that carry it out. For example, there are at least four different names referring to urban management departments in different cities. Luo Yameng, director of the China City International Association, an independent urban planning research center, pointed out that the chaos in China’s urban management system is mainly caused by the lack of coordination between departments across the country. “There are not even national regulations for the uniforms chengguan wear,” he said.

As a comprehensive urban regulation enforcement body acting under local governments, city management inspectors are unaccountable to any legal or administrative bodies.

Carrot, Not Stick

Experts believe that due to the expediency that the chengguan system provides, the authorities have been keen to delay the clarification of its legal foundations, employment practice, pay conditions and code of conduct.

“Currently, there is no specific law or regulation for monitoring the conduct of chengguan,” says lawyer Du Liyuan of Beijing Dacheng Law Offices. He said that chengguan can only carry out their enforcement activities by “borrowing” laws – while they freely impose administrative penalties, they themselves are not recognized by administrative laws. “Chengguan play a fundamental role in managing cities, but the institution is a double embarrassment because it lacks both morality and legal status,” added Du.

The lack of laws and regulations means that in every conflict between chengguan and street hawkers, both sides follow their own rules. Inspectors need to justify their own existence by enforcing regulations, and hawkers are confrontational because they need to survive.

“From the perspective of fairness, everyone has the right to live in cities,” said Professor Guo Weiqing from Sun Yat-sen University. “In fact, the law does not prohibit street vending.” Guo believes that the city belongs to whoever lives in it. Therefore, city management must be fair, and fairness requires broad public participation.

“During the rapid urbanization of Chinese society, city planners have not left sufficient room for street vendors, who are now fighting for their survival,” said Li Wei, director of the Social Development Office at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Li believes that even though there is clear demand for a street vending economy in cities, buyers are also concerned about food security, environmental pollution, and the impact on public transportation.

 “Public order is also indispensable,” said Guo. He suggests that the function of city management should shift toward providing services to vendors, and that the government should recognize the legality of street vending, then manage it appropriately.

 In recent years, some city management officials have realized that allowing chengguan to rule the streets with an iron fist not only harms street vendors, but also inconveniences local residents. Some cities have loosened their measures on vendors, and have issued regulations allowing them to sell in certain areas and times of day.

 “In essence, urban management is a process whereby the public transfers their right of management to professional departments and personnel. Therefore, the interests of the manager and the managed fundamentally converge,” says Professor Yuan Defeng of the Beijing Institute of Petrochemical Technology. “To improve the current city management system, officials must find a way to trim down their management.”


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