In danger of blowing up?

Two prominent cases trigger criticism of security officials

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The funeral for melon seller Deng Zhengjia

Every language has at least one word that can’t be fully translated because the concept hasn’t been precisely identified elsewhere or because it simply doesn’t exist.

Schadenfreude – taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others – is a famous one from German. Jayus is a brilliant word from Bahasa Indonesian (for moments when a joke is told so badly you can’t help but laugh).

China has its own share of outliers too. But the one that has been in the spotlight this week is chengguan.

Chengguan are somewhere between police officers and security guards. Sometimes translated as ‘urban enforcement officers’ or ‘city management officers’, they are hired by municipal governments on short contracts to carry out unpopular jobs such as evicting people from buildings slated for demolition or keeping the streets free of beggars and hawkers.

Because of their notoriously thuggish ways they are almost universally hated too.

Comments online often compare chengguan to bandits or wolves. Comparisons to dogs or pigs are often shouted down as being insulting to the animals concerned.

So it was with a sense of dull horror that many read last week about how a 56 year-old melon farmer from the southern province of Hunan had been beaten to death by local chengguan. It happened in broad daylight and in front of witnesses.

Deng Zhengjia and his wife Huang Xixi had travelled to the town of Linwu to sell their melons last Wednesday. According to media reports they encountered a group of chengguan and were ordered to move their wares to a designated spot.

This they did, but a few hours later more chengguan appeared at the market and an altercation broke out over the chengguan contingent’s refusal to provide a receipt for a Rmb100 fine they had levied.

Huang was then knocked unconscious. When she woke up, her husband was dead. Witnesses said a chengguan hit him over the head with a heavy metal object.

Several people then posted images and accounts of the event on China’s popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo and Deng’s death soon became headline news.

The violence did not end there. After Deng had died, friends and relatives gathered around the body to prevent the police or other chengguan from removing it, fearing they would destroy the evidence. At 4am the following morning the street lights around the site were dimmed and riot police moved in to disperse the crowd. Deng’s body was later found dumped on a road leading into his village.

That morning the authorities also issued a statement saying that an examination of Deng’s body showed that he had “suddenly collapsed and died”. The phrase became a rallying cry online, causing much the same ridicule as other examples of official double-speak in the past, such as the term ‘temporary rape’ (or the incident referred to in WiC20 when an inmate of a prison in Jiangxi was said to have died “after having a nightmare”).

Millions began following the case online and China’s opinion-leading bloggers took up the cause. Zuoyeben, with 6.2 million followers, was particularly prolific. As the story broke, he emphasised how individual cases might end up having a wider impact, warning: “Each unfairly treated person is a potential bomb for the country.”

But it was Li Chengpeng, another prominent social critic, who captured the mood best in a powerful essay. If a simple water melon farmer couldn’t grow and sell his crop, what hope is there for Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream, Li asked (see WiC192)?

Others took up a similar theme, especially after another major incident last Saturday night in which a wheelchair-bound petitioner set off a bomb in Terminal 3 of Beijing’s airport. Ji Zhongxing, the bomber, is said to have been paralysed by a beating from government security officials in 2005. This was to punish him for running an illegal taxi service in Xintang in Guangdong province.

Both incidents had netizens speculating that too many ordinary citizens were feeling unsafe and unheard. There was also the fear that people with grievances pose a risk to more than themselves when they take matters into their own hands. “In the past 10 years, we have accumulated as many ready-to-explode bombs as there are desperate people who’ve been denied justice. Why we should care about them? Because to care about them is to care about ourselves. One case of justice done is one bomb removed,” wrote another weibo celebrity, Jia Zhuang Zai Niu Yue.

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