Contradictory statements about a sugar cane seller’s death have added fuel to an ongoing debate about excessive violence by chengguan, members of an official force tasked with enforcing municipal bylaws.
Photos of a dead man lying next to a chengguan vehicle circulated widely on Sunday on Chinese social media.
The man was later identified as 62-year-old Xu Lizhong, a shopowner selling sugar cane. Family members told the Southern Metropolis Daily they witnessed Xu dying after being pushed by officers in a brawl.
“The law enforcement vehicle seen in photos uploaded by netizens on weibo is not our vehicle. Our department’s employees did not partake in this act,” the Yiyang Municipal Law Enforcement Department, tasked with enforcing municipal by-laws, rushed to say in a microblog post on Sunday.
However the denial by the municipal force later disappeared from the weibo account. By the evening, the Ziyang district public information office said three chengguan officers were being investigated over Xu’s “sudden death”.
Xu's death is the latest in a long list of tragic cases brought on by alleged excessive violence on the part of chengguan officials that have provoked nationwide outrage and calls for reform on China’s online public space.
The latest tragedy reminds many of the death of watermelon seller Deng Zhengjia, in southern Linwu county, Hunan province, in July. When photos of Deng’s body began to circulate, local authorities were quick to reject accusations of wrongdoing. After a public outcry, they were forced to backtrack and investigate officers for beating Deng to death.
Xu’s death also comes four days after the execution of Xia Junfeng in Shenyang, Liaoning province, which has led to renewed calls for reform of the force. Xia, a street vendor, had been sentenced to death for killing two officers in 2009, while being interrogated. His defence attorney had argued that Xia acted in self-defence.
”Let the Shenyang Intermediate Court handle the case,” commented one Internet user, referring to the court which handed down Xia’s death sentence. “Lear from Hong Kong,” wrote another. “Abolish the chengguan force, let uniformed police patrol the streets.”
Efforts to reform the controversial force are taking place in several cities. Starting on Tuesday, Shenzhen’s officers will be explicitly banned from insulting or threatening hawkers, according to a new administrative regulation.