China’s urban law enforcement officers, known as chengguan 城管 (short for Urban Management Regulation Enforcement Teams,
Chengshi guanli xingzheng zhifa dadui 城市管理行政执法大队) don’t have a very good reputation — the word is sometimes used both online and off as a synonym for ‘thug’. Chengguan regularly make the news and raise the hackles of commentators on social media for harassing and assaulting street vendors, beggars and others. ‘Beat Him, Take Everything Away’, a Human Rights Watch report published in 2012, explained the well-intentioned rationale behind the chengguan system like this:

Chengguan officers busy taking down the fence around an illegal construction before demolition, while being filmed by local TV, in Zhabei district, Shanghai, 29 January 2013. Photo: Remko Tanis
Chengguan officers busy taking down the fence around an illegal construction before demolition, while being filmed by local TV, in Zhabei district, Shanghai, 29 January 2013.
Photo: Remko Tanis

The legal basis for the creation of the chengguan is the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administrative Penalty (hereafter, Administrative Penalties Law), passed in March 1996. That law did not specifically call for the creation of the chengguan, nor did it use that term. Instead, the law empowered provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities to ‘entrust an organization … with imposing administrative penalties’ regarding matters falling outside the realm of criminal law and the authority of the Public Security Bureau (China’s police) … .

The goals of the Chinese government appear to have been streamlining enforcement of local administrative regulations which were traditionally the responsibility of multiple local government departments, minimizing opportunities for corruption and abuse of power, and better controlling public unrest… .

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Zhou Hanhua [has remarked:]

Originally [urban social control] issues were handled by the danwei (单位), the work unit, to which Chinese employees were once closely bound. The danwei … prevented people from engaging in [commercial] enterprises on the side. The decline of China’s state-owned enterprises in the 1990s precipitated the breakdown of the danwei system. At the same time, the country grew increasingly urbanized and millions of migrant workers poured into the cities. The traditional [urban social control] system could no longer manage [so] the chengguan were established to handle the problems of the urban environment.

It was not until August 2002 that the central government published a directive outlining eight specific areas of administrative law — ranging from environmental sanitation and traffic regulations to urban beautification rules — that provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities may delegate to chengguan. But even that directive does not specify permissible and prohibited means of enforcement, or set forth rules to guide the deportment and accountability of
relevant enforcement personnel.

In the absence of such rules and guidelines and operating under municipal and local governments but with shadowy connections to local police, the chengguan often employ brutish tactics to keep casual street vendors in order or off the streets, chase away beggars, and regulate outdoor advertising and noise pollution. In some areas, they also manage the allocation and regulation of parking spaces — a growing source of vexation and conflict in Chinese cities.