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Chengguan officers should 'disarm'
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By Fang Ligang

Chinese urban inspectors, known as chengguan, have found themselves under fire as complaints against them rise.

It is reported that after a chengguan officer was stabbed by a street peddler recently in Shenzhen, the enforcement team was ordered to wear stab-proof vests, and learn self-defense strategies to protect themselves from attack. It is unfortunate that a chengguan officer was stabbed, but it is tragic that a more heavily-armed enforcement team is being seen as the appropriate response to threats from street peddlers. Such a "cold war" atmosphere of escalation is a dangerous sign that more tragedies might happen.

There is a ruthless logic behind the barbaric approach of chengguan officers: on the one hand, an orderly urban environment is closely linked to the "face" of the administrator who has no responsibility to fill the stomach of the hungry street peddler; on the other hand, income from fines and confiscations is one of the major sources of income for the enforcers, hence the hidden rule is to abuse their power and seek out any excuse to fine and make money.

The urban inspector is a typical Chinese profession. When a series of clashes related to this work attracted the attention of foreign media, the inspectors were simple referred to as "chengguan". But there is no such occupation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), where cases related to urban management are generally handled by police. What is noticeable is the attitude of the HKSAR authorities towards street peddlers – the HKSAR government provides necessary services such as free training for peddlers and exemption from taxes; it also directs police resources to maintain security in certain areas where street peddlers gather. The HKSAR government considers it a worthwhile contribution to the region if street peddlers can earn themselves a living – those who cannot are eligible for subsidies from the government, averaging 3,000 yuan per person per month.

Even thousands of years ago, Chinese intellectuals realized that concern for people's fundamental interests is a matter of importance. They thus advised the then authorities to reduce taxation and provide more living space for ordinary people. In the current climate, the real victims are the street peddlers themselves who deserve sympathy and understanding. Confronted with the issue of individual well-being, it should be possible to make concessions on the "face" of the city, because living a better life is more important than showing a beautiful "face". Even if a city's streets are wide and orderly, this reflects only arrogance and indifference if it is not accompanied by signs of tolerance and care.

We can join these two conflicting strands only if we put people first and get people actively involved in solving problems. To maintain a harmonious urban environment, what chengguan officers should do now is to "disarm" and resume their "service" duty.

(Fang Ligang is a master of social management from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.)

(China.org.cn translated by Fan Junmei, May 5, 2009)

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