BEIJING — The death of a watermelon seller in China’s south-central Hunan province, allegedly at the hands of law enforcement officials known as “chengguan,” has touched off a new flood of outrage over the often-thuggish municipal code enforcers.
Deng Zengjia and his wife were attempting to sell melons Wednesday morning near a bridge in Linwu county when a dozen chengguan appeared and fined them for selling without a license, state-run media reported. The couple then moved their cart to a different area.
Shortly thereafter, Deng and his wife clashed again with a group of chengguan, who are a rung below police. Local government officials released a statement saying Deng suddenly fell down and died, but witnesses say a fight ensued and Deng was beaten to death with his own scale.
Photos widely circulated online showed what looked like the crumpled I.D. card of one chengguan near Deng’s body.
When local authorities sought to take Deng’s body away, bystanders and Deng’s family refused and formed a ring around his corpse to protect it as evidence.
In the predawn hours of Thursday morning, hundreds of police officers moved in to remove the body and clashed with the crowd. Photos of people apparently bruised and bloodied in the melee quickly went viral. An autopsy was later performed with members of Deng’s family present.
Local authorities held a news conference on Thursday afternoon and said the precise cause of Deng’s death remained unclear. Online reports from Hunan-based reporters said He Zunqing, the county chief, pledged that an investigation was underway and that those responsible would be punished.
Deng’s death has been among the most hotly discussed topics on China’s microblogs for the last several days.
Television personality Yuan Yuncai took to Weibo to suggest the chengguan system be abolished. “It is time to shut down this deformed organization!” he wrote.
Another prominent microblogger even compared Deng to the Tunisian vegetable seller whose cart was confiscated by police in 2010 and later immolated himself in protest over the harassment. His death helped trigger protests leading to the fall of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
In recent years, China’s media have been full of reports about chengguan clashing with citizens in many cities. In the summer of 2011, thousands of people rioted for three days in the southern province of Guangdong after chengguan reportedly beat the pregnant owner of a roadside stall. Last month, authorities in Shaanxi province fired several chengguan who were caught on video beating a bicycle shop owner and stomping on his head.
Other victims have included construction company boss who was slain after he filmed chengguan trying to stop a protest. A kebab cart owner who stabbed two chengguan to death in 2009 after they attacked him was heralded online as a hero.
An editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based publication closely affiliated with the Communist Party, said Friday that “violent law enforcement by a minority of chengguan is caused by their personal qualities. . It has nothing to do with the chengguan system.”
At the same time, the paper noted that chengguan “are deeply mired in the swirl of public opinion, which calls them to speed up self-improvement to change their current image and walk out of the swamp.”