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AN EYE FOR AN EYE

The scene was reminiscent of what one has read about the lynchings of landlords during the Chinese revolution. Hundreds of people surrounded a van in which five terrified chengguan (urban management guards) had locked themselves in. They broke the van’s windows and door, pulled out the chengguan and set upon them. Pictures of the scene show bloodied unconscious men, stripped naked, some inside the van, some bludgeoned at the door. Two of the men are critical.

What provoked this violence? The similarity to what happened during the Revolution is startling. Then, it was the tyranny of the landlords that generations of peasants had suffered that made them take revenge brutally, despite communist party cadre’s efforts to restrain them. In Lingxi town, what provoked the people was the rumour that the chengguan had beaten a man to death. Turned out the man had been beaten, but not to death. However, as the official China Daily said, what must cause concern is: how come this rumour was instantly believed? The answer to that is the chengguan’s notorious brutality in dealing with hawkers. Last week, an appeals court upheld the prison terms, varying from three to 11 years, of four chengguan sentenced for beating to death a watermelon vendor. And last month, the chengguan killed a 70-year-old passer-by who intervened while they were evicting hawkers.

Brutal response

In Lingxi too, it was a passer-by who became the victim of the chengguan’s brutality. Taking pictures on his mobile as they roughed up an old woman selling eggs, he rebuked the chengguan. The latter turned on him, and when he tried to escape, gave chase, kicking him till he vomited blood. Other bystanders tried to remonstrate with the chengguan, but they too were assaulted. That was when the uniformed chengguan quietly drove off, leaving their assistants, not in uniform, behind. A shopowner nearby identified the now unconscious victim as her uncle, and immediately people in the neighbourhood gathered around. Messages on WeChat flew thick and fast, and by the time the police arrived, thousands had gathered. Such was the fury of the people that they overturned the ambulance called for the bruised chengguan.

The incident went on from 9 am to 4 pm, on a busy main street. The street is normally filled with farmers vending their wares in the morning, but of late, the chengguan have redoubled their efforts to clear it because Lingxi town is in the race for the title of ‘model/civilized county city’. By the time the city government put out a statement identifying those who beat up the by-stander as “temporary workers”, thousands of viewers had seen the pictures of the incident. The government’s claim was greeted with derision by netizens, so also the police’s claim that most of those arrested from the spot were “idle bodies” (troublemakers).

Interestingly, a commentary in the Beijing Youth Daily, reproduced in China Daily, justified the authorities’ delay in intervening by pointing out that an “inappropriate response” could have aggravated the situation, and that “soft means and more self-restraint are better when dealing with mass incidents like this.” Says the commentary, more terrifying than the incident itself is the thought that a “minor incident” could become a “mass incident”. Most “mass incidents” have been confrontations between people directly affected by State action and the authorities. That was not the case here, and this turns the incident into a “profound reminder to the authorities that fairness and justice are the best medicine to soothe the rising social discontent and also the best stabilizer of social order.’’ There was one difference between the Revolution and now — there was no one to restrain the people’s fury.