China / Society

Homeless harassment prompts outrage

(China Daily/Xinhua) Updated: 2013-01-10 07:36

The theft of vagrants' belongings in downtown Beijing has prompted a public outcry and calls to better protect homeless people's rights.

A group of more than 50 uniformed, but unidentified, individuals took the possessions of homeless people who were staying on a street near the Yongdingmen long-distance bus station on Saturday afternoon, witnesses said on Wednesday.

"They forcibly took away quilts, winter clothing and packs of instant noodles that were donated by volunteers," said a bus driver who witnessed the incident but declined to give his name.

The driver said the thieves arrived at the scene in vehicles bearing insignia indicating that they were "chengguan", city government constables who help police maintain public order.

"I heard the vagrants cry 'thieves' when the vehicles left," the bus driver said.

Reports of the use of excessive force by chengguan officers are common, the very word "chengguan" has become synonymous with violence in the minds of some Chinese.

A well-known case involving chengguan occurred in 2006, when Cui Yingjie, a fruit vendor from Hebei province, killed a chengguan officer in Beijing after having his fruit cart violently confiscated.

Some of the victims of Wednesday's incident voiced their grievances to Yu Jianrong, a Beijing-based social researcher who launched an online campaign in December calling on people to donate quilts and winter clothing to help the homeless survive the bitter winter.

Beijing is experiencing its coldest winter in decades, with temperatures plummeting to -15 C.

"An elderly man called me on Sunday and asked for help. He gave his name as Dong Jiangai," said Yu. "He said he was freezing and asked me to save him."

Dong, 70, said the chengguan took his bedding and officers warned him to leave the area, as well.

Dong obtained Yu's phone number when they met in December while Yu was delivering donated clothing and food.

"He is a petitioner from Liao-ning province and has eked out a living by collecting and selling waste in Beijing for more than 10 years," Yu said.

The incident has been widely discussed online. Many netizens have voiced anger at the chengguan.

The management committee of Beijing's Dongcheng district denied accusations of theft on Tuesday.

A committee official said on condition of anonymity that the officers took only "waste and garbage" and did not take coats or quilts.

"The looting accusations are unfair," the official said.

He said the committee has frequently received reports from residents complaining that vagrants have blocked sidewalks with their bedding.

"We launched a 'cleanup and aid' campaign on Saturday along with the civil affairs department, public security bureau and the environmental protection agency," the official said, adding they found more than 20 homeless people in the area and tried to persuade them to move on.

However, most homeless have no choice but to sleep on the streets.

"I don't know where to go. I can only find another street corner to avoid being thrown into an asylum and eventually sent back home. I prefer it here because I have no family left in my hometown," said Li Zhen, one of the city's homeless.

"Citizens' rights should prevail over local officials' desire to keep up the city's appearance," Shenzhen University professor Wang Yongcheng said.

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