Just a little over a week ago reports came out about a man, Wei Wenhua, being beaten to death by hired city official “enforcers” in the city of Tianmen, Hubei.

Wei had stopped near a clash between city officials and locals who were protesting the dumping of garbage by their homes. When Wei attempted to capture the skirmish on his mobile phone, he was taken from his car and beaten to death.

An interesting piece by David Barboza in yesterday’s New York Times described how the ensuing outcry from citizens on blogs across the country helped in pressuring the central government to act and punish those responsible.

SHANGHAI — More than 100 people are under investigation and several government officials have been detained or removed from office in central China after a dispute in early January in which a group of city officials beat a bystander to death.

The government investigation, which was reported by state-run news outlets here, was touched off by bloggers in China who were outraged that a 41-year-old man had been fatally beaten while trying to use his cellphone to photograph a dispute between villagers and city inspectors.

weiwenhua.jpgWhereas 10 years ago, or even five years ago, an event like this would have only resulted in a mourning family crying for justice while in a horribly long line in Beijing, through the power of the Internet, and the social network it brings, people who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice or a shot at justice are being given one.

In Wei’s case, he was murdered by “chéngguǎn“, rent-a-cops that spend the bulk of their time kicking beggars and chasing illegal street food vendors. They are notorious for abusing the little power they’ve been given, and were, by one Chinese blogger at least, dubbed “worse than the mafia.”

“It is definitely not the first time for something like this,” said a blogger on the popular Chinese Web site Sina.com. “What makes it news is that this time they got one man dead, the news got online, and the whole nation got informed. So they got serious.” - from the Times article

China’s a massive country, with endless levels of bureaucracy masking all sorts of corruption. When you look at municipal governments around the country it’s hard not to be reminded of a time, less than a hundred years ago, when things regionally were run by warlords who had little or nothing to do with Beijing. Little emperors quite willing to abuse what power they had to benefit themselves as best they could.

Now, like then, China is rife with low-level corruption and abuses, something I don’t envy the central government for having to deal with. As with all things that have histories which run deep, they’re difficult to uproot.

However, the type of citizen journalism that Wei is now being lauded a champion and martyr of, and the online mechanism by which his story was quickly spread across China, shines as a new light and offers the promise of bringing justice down on those that in times past used geography and poverty to keep their abuses silent.

Additional Reads

Definitely check out John Kennedy’s post at Global Voices entitled, “Citizen reporter killed – by who?. The post contains a number of translated comments about the incident from various Chinese sources. It also offers some photos of other violent acts that chéngguǎn have been responsible for.

Also, CNN has a pretty good article, as well as a video (which I wasn’t able to load).

Talk on Bloggers put “An” back in Tianmen


3 Comments
  1. The chéngguǎn in my city were out clearing up some of the street vendors the other day.
    Glad to see that things are happening in light of this incident, agree with you Ryan, it’s a ray of hope.

  2. What’s scary is that Chengguan beat the guy to death (who are not, in fact “rent-a-cops” but rather a sanctioned government bureau). Notorious for abusing unlicensed vendors in the past, this is the first I’ve heard of them resorting to killing someone outright for doing what he was doing.

    In the past it was always the security guards (bao an) hired by either the city, private companies, or to beef up the police that resorted to this sort of violence (see stories on Shenzhen where Bao An “gangs” and fiefdoms started battling it out in public). Yes, in China, a miniscule iota of power given to someone assures that the individual will abuse it to the maximum amount allowable.

    I loved the quote in the story from city officials there stating it’s all over, justice has been served and you can all go home now. Reminds me of Officer Barbrady in “South Park” or Chief Wiggum in “The Simpsons” with their stock answer “Nothing to see here…everyone break it up and go home…”

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