It’s not often one comes across riot police on one’s way home from work. The uncommon and unexpected, however, is much more common when living in China.
As I turned the final corner of my walk home this evening, a mass of over fifty, less than a hundred people appeared. This being the south of China, the short climb to my tiptoes allowed me to look over most of the heads , where I saw riot police keeping the crowd at bay. I tried to get to a higher place to see what was behind the wall of shields, bludgeons and helmets. They’d formed an unbroken line and I couldn’t snatch a glimpse. I tried to ask what had happened. The first man replied:
“It’s nothing, just a small matter”.
“Just a small matter?!” I retorted. Incredulous. “So many police?”
“They’re not police” he said calmly, “they’re cheng guan (城管)”
He took a couple of steps away from me.
Cheng guan are city rangers. A band men of who have a reputation for thuggery, brutality and murder (I’m sure female cheng guan exist, but I’ve never seen one). They are notorious.
I approached another onlooker: “Did you see what happened?”
“No” he replied, looking down.
There’s a lot of fear in Chinese society. I’m coming to the realisation that it’s mainly fear that keeps 1.6 billion people in line. People are (rightly) terrified of what will happen to them if they break the rules. There are explicit, law-type rules, but there are many more that are muscularly implied. Voicing your opposition to the cheng guan, even just speaking what they have committed, is one of those rules. Expressing this to a foreigner? Forget it.
Not everyone is afraid to talk. Now so more than ever. The explosion of social media and smart phones have caused massive change in people’s lives, but the most significant impacts have been felt in countries where governments stifle their people’s voice.
I’ll get back to this. For the moment, let me continue with my story. I skirted around to the other side of the crowd, hoping for a better perspective and to find someone who would tell me what the hell had happened. I saw a mashed mess of fruit on the concrete. A woman’s cry leaked through the wall of men. A despairing, gurgling sort of moan that is chilling to the core. I could still see nothing. I tried again: “What happened?”
“They hit her” replied an older man. His cigarette wiggled between his lips.
“A fruit seller?” I asked. By now I already knew what had happened. And how it would end. This same story is a frequent feature on many China blogs and online media. See here, here, here, and this particularly disturbing photo series here. I was trying to get a good photo of the riot gear. One of the men nudged me forward, “get closer, take pictures”, he encouraged. A few people were backing away, allowing me to get nearer to middle. I caught a glimpse, less than a second, of a woman. She was prone on the concrete, her body curled unnaturally, her head twisted to one side.
I’d seen enough. I retreated. I rushed home, trying desperately to fill my mind with other things. I turned back for one last view of the scene. I’m glad I did. I am now holding on to an uplifting image in my mind: the glow of small, coloured screens attached to elongated arms, hovering above a crowd of people. I knew that even as I scuttled under the safety blanket of my apartment, there were brave people facing fear to try to bring these brutes to justice. As I opened the door, a cry erupted from the crowd. I don’t know how it ended for that woman. I don’t think I want to. One thing I do know is that the residents and passersby in Guangli street were not the only ones to witness this violence tonight. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese will see the images on the internet. In the safety of the anonymity of their computer screens, they will voice their outrage. Slowly, things will change.