Debate: Chengguan

Updated: 2011-07-18 08:04

(China Daily)

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The role of urban management officers has come in for sharp public criticism. But who is to blame for all the troubles they cause? Two scholars enlighten us with their views.

Hu Xiaowu

Do not blame city officers alone

Urban management in China has long relied on the city urban administrative and law enforcement bureau, better known as chengguan. But the image of chengguan officers has been tarnished because of the violent clashes they have had with street vendors.

Urban management should be an inclusive system with systematic coordination and cooperation among different sectors of the government. It's unfair that chengguan officers alone have to bear the responsibility of urban management and take the blame for all the faults in the system.

Sometimes, urban residents are frustrated by the noise emanating from stores and restaurants that are open at night and/or construction sites, and seek chengguan officers' help. Others feel threatened by speeding "electric bicycle taxis" or complain against lack of space on pavements and underpasses. Problems arise when chengguan officers try to confront people causing the disturbances and inconvenience to restore order.

Chengguan officers are just one part of a city's administration, and take orders from higher authorities. So rather than blaming chengguan officers, people should help the administration find the root of urban management problems and solve them.

China's urban management has made great progress in recent years, but it has not kept pace with urbanization and social transformation. Many cities have to build new buildings and roads, and offer new jobs. But when a city's administration sanctions big infrastructure projects, people complain against the air and noise pollution they cause and demand that order and peace be restored. In other words, many residents want the best of both worlds - fast urban development to ensure they get all the amenities and an environment of peace and order - which chengguan officers are unable to meet. How can chengguan officers stop the construction craze in China?

To achieve the goal of "better city, better life", we need to rethink the planning and management style followed by cities. The first step city authorities take should be to regulate the new construction projects. Because of lack of proper supervision, construction site managers often ignore residents' right to information. That's why many people are ignorant of the reasons behind the fast pace of construction in some areas.

City officials need to change their belief in skyscrapers, too, and impose strict standards on all new construction projects. They should ensure that construction sites dispose their waste properly, cause little or no noise at night and do not obstruct the flow of traffic so as to cause minimum trouble for residents in the vicinity. And they should sanction a construction project only with the consent of or minimal opposition from the local people.

The authorities also have to give up the over-pursuit of uniformity. If they force chengguan officers to close small shops, drive away vendors and remove all "obstacles", the result could be harmful, because many people could lose their livelihood and local residents might find it difficult to buy things as easily.

Several recent cases show how much hatred vendors have against chengguan officers because of their violent methods. It is thus important that the authorities consider everyone's needs and stop ordering chengguan officers to use violent means against disadvantaged people only because their modes of livelihoods do not conform to that of the majority.

Long-term planning and efficient law enforcement are both needed to better maintain order in cities. City planners must work out a comprehensive long-term plan and stick to it, instead of changing it at will. Too many new buildings have been demolished in recent years because of a change of mind by higher officials. The authorities need to understand and follow sustainable development and stop wasting resources on unnecessary projects.

Overall, the efficiency of the current urban management is low. Urban management consists of many aspects, including environmental protection, street cleaning, noise control, air quality monitoring and proper waste disposal. But it seems the main task of chengguan officers now is to drive away vendors from pavements and underpasses. Chengguan officers should be responsible for maintaining order, not for clearing streets and underpasses of vendors.

The authorities should remember that they are duty-bound to serve the people first. And if chengguan officers follow that principle, their job should be to provide public service, not forceful and administrative governance. Chengguan officers can do a better job by serving residents, especially at the grass-roots level. For example, they can make provisions for more people to share the resources of "street economy" by coordinating and better planning the business time of vendors. That's the sort of service people need most.

The author is a professor of sociology at Nanjing University.

Liu Neng

Building a truly beautiful city

Of all the problems faced by the urban management system in China, the most common is the violent conflicts between street vendors and officers of the urban administrative and law enforcement bureau, or chengguan.

It is not uncommon for chengguan officers to chase vendors away from streets through violent means, which deprives many people of their livelihoods. As a result, the victims do not let go of any chance to hit back at chengguan officers and leave some of them injured.

The irony is that chengguan officers take such actions to "maintain the beauty of a city".

The real cause of the conflict between chengguan officers and vendors is the rigid ideology some urban officials have and their twisted sense of aesthetics. By imposing their own idea of beauty on the cities they govern, they have created inconvenience, even caused trouble, for many residents.

The three key words many city authorities use to describe a beautiful city are uniformity, development and coerciveness. Uniformity is what they want their dream cities to have. Unfortunately, this weird sense of uniformity is making many Chinese cities lose their distinctive characteristics.

In the uniformity blueprint of cities, street vendors are considered an eyesore, which should be removed - with force if necessary. But are city bosses justified in executing their individual sense of "urban beauty" to deprive vendors of their livelihood?

City authorities' sense of development is guided by the blind pursuit of higher GDP. Most of the cities' bosses tend to equalize new, tall buildings with the best urban landscape. So they despise small and traditional buildings, and demolish old buildings to make way for high rises. This leads to conflicts between officials and occupants of such buildings, which at times can turn violent.

Perhaps the worst part of urban management is the use of coercion against vendors, who are treated as a wily and untamed lot that is difficult to deal with. Not having the patience to communicate with vendors to explain the need to keep streets and underpasses clear, many city authorities resort to violent means to remove them.

But the violent methods and high-handedness of chengguan officers have heightened tensions between city authorities and residents, especially vendors. The public and the media pay greater attention to chengguan officers' use of violence because it deals a serious blow to social justice.

A city full of highrises and uniform roads and buildings is what many city authorities dream of achieving, primarily because it could pave the way for their promotion or make their political future brighter. Many city authorities think, and wrongly so, that high-rises and uniform streets (together with higher GDP growth) will make it easier for them to realize their dreams.

But it is precisely this illusion of officials that has drawn the harshest public criticism against chengguan officers. Many officials make changes to a city's architectural landscape at will, without paying attention to residents' needs and complaints. The best way of solving this problem is therefore to change urban officials' mindset, that is, we need to redefine what cities in China should look like and what role, residents, vendors and chengguan officers should play in them.

I visited San Francisco a few years ago, and I think it is a good example for Chinese cities to learn from. San Francisco residents design their residential communities (which includes deciding the shape and size of residential buildings) through self-established and self-supported committees, and provide the complete system of civic services in return.

Instead of intervening in the affairs of residents, city governments in California concentrate on making rules, for example, setting the level of noise that a construction site can generate. And they respond to residents' complaints if the rules are violated by individuals or groups, including business organizations. This arrangement proved successful especially for reconstruction after the 1989 earthquake in California.

Such rules may not be ideal for a city, but at least they offer an alternative mode of successful urban development. Personally, I think that in a truly beautiful city, residents should have a greater say in city planning. Residents, not officials, should decide which part of their street is to be used for business purposes.

Moreover, the role of chengguan officers in cities should be more about service than regulation. More importantly, chengguan officers should be made to give up their extensive mode of urban management. In other words, residents should not feel the interfering existence of chengguan officers unless they are needed to help people or tackle specific problems.

The author is a professor of sociology at Peking University. This is an excerpt of his interview with China Daily's Zhang Zhouxiang.

Debate: Chengguan

(China Daily 07/18/2011 page9)