Stories about chengguan - officers employed by city urban administrative and law enforcement bureaus - beating up street vendors are nothing new, but when a video showing one in Yanan , Shaanxi , stamping on a vendor's head was circulated online last week, it sparked surprise and anger.
Eight chengguan, who are meant to maintain social order, took five bicycles from a bike shop while patrolling a street, saying they were obstructing a road. The dispute developed into a fight between the shop owner and the officers, which was recorded by an onlooker and put online.
The shop owner suffered injuries to his head, his chest and a shoulder. All eight chengguan were fired, and two were detained for assault, the city government announced on Wednesday.
However, the authorities' claim they were all "temporary employees", and not official civil servants permanently employed by the government, triggered another round of criticism.
The Modern Express called it an underhand way to distance the bureau from its black sheep.
The central government has repeatedly said that local governments should strictly control the employment of temporary workers, especially those who enforce laws and regulations. So how did the temporary workers involved in the attack in Yanan get their jobs? The Modern Express asked whether some cadres had breached rules and given jobs to relatives and acquaintances.
The brutality of the chengguan in the video made people suspect the agency had employed gangsters to beat up misbehaving citizens, knowing it could easily fire them once they crossed the line, it said.
Chengguan have long been controversial. Their ferocity is notorious, with a New York-based rights organisation issuing a 76-page report documenting abuses last year.
One chengguan in a county in southern China told the Xinhua Daily Telegraph that a third of the people in his department were working on short-term contracts. They had very heavy workloads and seldom had a chance to study or train. He said many found words of little use when trying to correct misbehaviour by members of the public and when persuasion failed, they simply resorted to violence.
Cases of chengguan being beaten up by vendors are also common, but the Southern Metropolis Daily said one could not judge who was right and who was wrong simply by calculating who had been beaten up more.
It said that on the one hand, cases of assaults by chengguan kept hitting the headlines, and they were not strictly punished, while on the other hand, violence by vendors was becoming more common, leaving many chengguan to lament that they were misunderstood. It then became a vicious circle.
The Beijing Youth Daily argued that the connivance of superiors was also to blame for the crude tactics adopted by chengguan. In some places, it said, they and higher-level authorities had reached a tacit understanding that the chengguan should handle all breaches of rules in return for a free hand in dishing out violent punishment.
The China Youth Daily said dereliction of duty by police also contributed to the problem. In the latest case, when one of the chengguan stamped on the head of the shop owner, a police car passed the scene but did not stop, the People's Daily reported.
"There's no provision that the chengguan can humiliate and beat up shop owners or even passers-by," the China Youth Daily said. "Once they beat up a person, they're not implementing the law but breaching it, so the police certainly have the right to intervene."
However, in terms of the bureaucratic hierarchy, public security bureaus that employ the police are on the same level as the bureaus that employ chengguan.