Death of Chinese Watermelon Vendor Sparks Online Outcry

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Carol Hills: Public anger is bubbling over in China, too. People there are outraged about the death of a watermelon vendor in a town in Hunan province. Deng Zhengjia was selling the fruit without a permit, and he was found out by officials known as urban management officers. It is unclear how the incident escalated, but the vendor reportedly died after being beaten by the officers. The story was recounted online, and the outcry has gone viral. David Wertime is co-founder of the online news site Tea Leaf Nation, which focuses on contemporary China.

David Wertime: These so-called urban management officers, or urban enforcers, are called changwan in Chinese. Basically this is a municipal level force, which exists in each Chinese city and has for over the last ten years. They're paid by the towns and cities to enforce local laws. A lot of these laws have to do with so-called urban beautification, everything from a zoning ordinance to, in many cases, street vendors who are not in the place that they are licensed to be.

Hills: Do they carry weapons?

Wertime: They carry clubs sometimes, and they are something less than police, certainly something more than an average citizen. And so what you see is a great deal of conflict with locals, which sometimes escalates into violence. You see graft. In fact, this particular incident allegedly started when the fruit vendors paid a 100 renminbi fine and asked to get a receipt to ensure that it was an actual fine, not a bribe. They were refused and then called the changwan bandits, which may have led to this incident.

Hills: But we don't quite know. We do know that it definitely went viral, lots of chatter on social media. What were the kinds of things you were seeing after the news broke that this farmer had died?

Wertime: There's a great deal of dissatisfaction and anger directed at changwan. This is by no means the first time that there has been a violent conflict between changwan and street vendors that's gone viral. In this case, a well-known blogger named Li Chun Pong wrote that the Chinese dream cannot be preserved if a fruit vendor cannot even realize his small dream of selling watermelon without being subjected to governmental violence. That was re-tweeted about 200,000 times.

Hills: Over the weekend, another incident occurred. This was at the Beijing airport. A disabled taxi driver, Ji Zhongxing — he set off a homemade bomb to protest his paralysis at the hands of these government security officers that we were talking about. Who is this man, and what happened?

Wertime: Ji Zhongxing was injured in 2005 in the city of Dongguan after he was beaten by, again, these changwan officers, and since then has kept up a blog in which he has detailed his efforts to petition for justice.

Hills: How do both of these incidences — the fruit seller who dies after an encounter with these urban enforcement officers and this paralyzed taxi driver who's injured when he tries to blow himself up because of his frustration — how do they affect Chinese President Xi Jinping's slogan, which is all about the Chinese dream?

Wertime: That slogan is inherently a political slogan. It's been translated variously as 'The Chinese Dream'  and 'The China Dream.'  It could refer in a way that we might recognize as something akin to the American dream: becoming prosperous, sending their kid to a good school, buying a house, buying a car. But it also refers to — I think — of China's dream of a continued rise. And I think one of the challenges that President Xi is facing is marrying the central government's more grandiose visions for what China can become to the everyday experience that Chinese have on the ground. And so that's one reason going back to Li Chun Pong's essay, why his essay and complaints like it have been so resonant. On one hand you have a China that is seeking to do very big things, but on the other hand you have a fruit vendor who can't carry out his business without encountering violence on a grassroots level.

Hills: David Wertime is the co-founder of the online news site, Tea Leaf Nation, which focuses on contemporary China. Thanks, David.