Earlier this month, thousands of people crowded around a group of chengguan in southern China, severely beating and bloodying the officers. This week, the country's state broadcaster issued footage of the incident that shows just how deeply on edge many segments of society are, and how quickly they can be inflamed.
Though China enjoys a low violent crime rate compared with the West, in recent years, violence has experienced an uptick. The average number of violent assaults by dissatisfied patients on medical personnel, for example, rose 30% between 2008 and 2012, including several fatal cases. The country's police recently began arming themselves in greater numbers, in part to try to ward against future incidents such as a mass slaying at a train station in Kunming that left 33 dead in March.
As this month's beating in Cangnan, Zhejiang province, showed, crowds can swiftly turn fractious and uncontrollable. For many years, antigovernment protests in China were largely confined to rural areas and carried out by farmers who had been thrown off their land. More recently, they've begun to involve migrant workers, who have been known to torch buildings, overturn police cars and smash windows.
But if the sea of smartphones amid the angry mob in Zhejiang is any indication, participants there weren't just disaffected migrant workers or the dispossessed but firmly planted in the country's middle class.
The incident was touched off when chengguan, China's urban para-police, began beating a man in a white shirt while trying to take away his cellphone after they spotted him photographing them. Footage showed the man lying on the ground with bloodied clothes, as passersby gaped and photographed him.
So far, so much par for the course--China's chengguan, charged with maintaining public order, are notorious for roughing up street vendors and protesters, sometimes with fatal results. But the chengguan, surely, didn't expect what happened next. As a local store owner told CCTV, 'Someone shouted, 'Chengguan are beating someone!''
An angry crowd surged, throwing stones and pushing violently up against masses of police who tried to stop them. Armed with cellphones, members of the mob quickly posted news of the incident online, attracting thousands. Several chengguan were beaten by the crowd. They tried to hide in a van, and its windows were smashed; two lost blood and went into shock. As video footage details, when an ambulance arrived at the scene to try to reach the officers, it was promptly surrounded by a sea of people who tipped it over onto its side and then cheered.
CCTV said all five chengguan involved in the incident are in administrative detention, along with 11 suspected of beating the officers.
The dramatic footage is a window into the fights occasionally waged on China's streets, as well as the depths of mistrust with which the chengguan are held. When two chengguan were killed in 2009 during a scuffle with a street vendor in northeastern China, the country's social media networks subsequently lit up with support for the vendor responsible for their deaths, following claims by his wife that he acted in self-defense.
For its part, the country's state broadcaster was intent on stressing the fact that this month's crowd amassed in part because of people hearing information about the incident on social media platforms such as Weibo. In the aftermath of the incident, some had spread information--ultimately untrue--that the man attempting to photograph the chengguan had been killed. 'After [such information spread], the situation started to get out of control,' the newscaster said.
The government has launched a concerted campaign to uproot the spread of rumors it deems harmful to society, including going so far as to institute prison sentences for people who have posted messages on social media containing untrue information reposted 500 times or more.
The volatile nature of China's crowds is a sign of the challenges the government faces, and a window into what's motivated such draconian laws. If a single spark can start a prairie fire, perhaps it's no surprise that the incident in Zhejiang has prompted such a round of introspection by state media, as well as further fuel for the state's antirumor campaign. Nor, perhaps, is it surprising that the country's budget for internal security spending has grown faster than its national defense spending in recent years.
As the Beijing Youth Daily pointed out, though, 'Simply criticizing 'rumors' is easy--and those who spread rumors will be punished by the law. What we need to understand is why the average person believes it's better to believe these rumors, rather than disbelieve them.'