Life as a street vendor is not easy in China. Public Enemy #1: the wimpy little chengguan and their mighty egos.
I just celebrated my one-year anniversary of being kicked out of China thanks to a couple of asshole chengguan. Fitting enough, my buddy in Xiamen just sent me the story of Xia Junfeng.
Xia is a hardworking street vendor in Western China who was just sentenced to death for the murder of two chengguan, or “urban management enforcers” (i.e. rent-a-cops with a corrupt Commie pedigree). In an impromptu online survey, 81% of nearly 2,000 respondents believed he should not have been convicted. As many friends would attest, this type of thing happens all the time in China.
Xia’s story is like many before him:
Xia Junfeng and his wife have been poor all their life. Xia was laid off from a state-owned electric machinery factory and did several temporary jobs. His wife Zhang Jing worked as a cleaning lady at a hotel and a baker at a kindergarten. They have pinned their hope on their only son. However, their income was barely enough for the family to scrape by.
Then they came up with the idea of hawking in the street. “It is close to home, low-cost, and has high profit margin. We have been working for others all our life. We can eventually start our own business,” Zhang Jing thought. Vending sausages and kabobs from a cart on the street finally earned them a decent amount of money and realized their biggest dream – sending their 9-year-old son to a painting class. Life seemed to be on the upturn, until the day they met two chengguan.
Harassed, beaten, hospitalized, and then detained, Xia felt the all-too-common wrath of China’s silent majority bully. He reacted as many have before, as many have throughout history when their livelihood and that of their family’s is put in jeopardy. He acted impulsively, violently. It was wrong, no doubt. It is always wrong to kill, a dogma even I, an atheist, hold true. Yet did he deserve his fatal lot?
Most children in China do not have much, but parents are willing to sacrifice anything to ensure they have a future.
This story reminded me of when I was teaching international journalism classes at Xiamen University a few years back. I had assigned students to write a story of some local news. They had two weeks to complete the story. Most were banal and amateur, yet one student stood out: a young girl who called herself “Boy.”
Boy had been walking to campus. About to cross the main road near the West Gate, she encountered a hectic scene. In front of the McDonald’s where street vendors perched daily hawking small trinkets at college-student prices, a crowd had gathered. In the middle, a handicapped vendor was lying on the ground, clinging to the last of his precious merchandise. Chengguan were beating him savagely. They didn’t care he was handicapped. They didn’t care he was helpless, alone. It only fueled their aggression, their inflated perceptions of power to fill the hollow hole of a conscious.
Boy got involved. She took pictures. She interviewed people. She took out a pad and jotted down names. As the crowd grew and the chengguan realized they were now the specter of an inflammatory crowd, they quickly fled. Left on the ground, bleeding, other sympathetic vendors rushed to the side of their fallen comrade.
They took him to the hospital, where he was treated for his wounds. He was beaten to the point of not being able to talk.
Xiamen University's West Gate, just a few steps from where dozens of street vendors peddle their wares.
The small amount of money he had had on him was taken by the chengguan. Together, the other vendors and Boy pooled what little money they had to pay for his medical bills. They took the medical report, the photos, the videos, and marched to the local police station.
Inside, they were put off. For hours. Officers sat in their “offices” smoking cigarettes and chatting while they waited outside. But they refused to leave until their complaint was heard.
Finally, a low-ranking grunt was sent to tell them to go home. They pleaded for an investigation, for something to be done about this gross injustice. Yet they got nothing. Not more than a couple of utterances in support of the thugs who had so savagely beaten a clearly helpless peasant.
Boy came back to me with this story. She asked me what to do. She was emotionally shaken to the core. Students are not fools. They know their country is often a brutal place for the least fortunate. Yet, they rarely face its cold hand. Boy felt helpless, isolated. She had gone to the authorities. She had done everything right.
Justice would not be done.
This was my last email to her about the issue:
After reading your story, and seeing your PS comment, I was upset that I wasn’t more help to you.
First, absolutely do not give up on your dream. Professional, creative, dedicated journalists are desperately needed in China. You have already proven to me that you are brave, intelligent, and have a natural instinct when finding stories. Plus, more importantly, you have passion.
You and I both know that China is not an easy place to live. I walk by people begging on the street, and I am heartbroken that I cannot help every single one of them. Life is certainly unfair. But it is up to all of us human beings to keep trying to make it a better place. Here in China, that is happening. Only it is happening slowly.
Thirty years ago, when your parents were growing up, there was never this much opportunity to express oneself and promote reform. Possibilities exist today!
Mr. Pan’s story is very troubling. And he is not alone. Chengguan abuse their power and break the law all over China. It is well documented. It is only when hundreds of people stand up and protest that the stories get noticed. As a journalist, you must struggle to be patient.
Change comes slowly. People fear it. They push back, against the flow of our natural human evolution.
Don’t give up! In English we say, “You can lose a battle and still win the war.” You have already done a lot to help Mr. Pan, even if you do not think so. You have shown him and his friends that there are young people who care about them, and that the future of China is brighter because of young people like you. You have confronted the chengguan who may think twice in the future about how they behave, meaning they may not do this again. You have had an effect! You told me the story, and others. You have spread information, knowledge. And we know that idiom: Knowledge is power.
Don’t give up! Be patient. Find a company and a boss that will support you, and go out there and keep kicking butt! In time, things will change. And many years from now, I know that you would rather be at home telling your grandchildren how you were part of those who changed China, and not telling them you were one who gave up the fight.
I am inspired by young people like you here in this country! 加油同志!
Sincerely, your friend and supporter,
Less than six months later I had my own fateful encounter with the chengguan. Four years from now, I will be allowed back to pursue another.
@Mike- Thanks for the love.