Zealous policing raises revenue for Chinese city

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

THE DRIVER in China’s Shaoyang city was surprised when a man wearing an armband tapped on his window and demanded he cough up a 10 yuan (€1.25) fine for edging on to the pedestrian crossing at a red light.

“Several others rushed to surround my car,” the man, surnamed Zhang, told local media. These guardians of urban order were city inspectors, or environment inspectors, hired from the ranks of retired public servants to police traffic fines and other minor public order violations.

Jaywalkers, litter louts and public spitters have become grist to their mill, because the city inspectors, working like pumped-up neighbourhood watch officers, get to keep 80 per cent of what they collect.

With this kind of incentive on offer, the inspectors have become increasingly zealous and citizens in Shaoyang, a city of 600,000, are complaining that they are turning into urban vigilantes.

“I didn’t know if they were traffic police or urban management officials, and why did they have the right to fine me? Ten yuan is just a little sum, what really matters is an official explanation,” Mr Zhang said.

Since the beginning of August, the Urban Management Bureau has hired 1,000 city environment inspectors to fine offenders.

The inspectors, aged between 40 and 60, are being paid 500 yuan (€63) a month, with their earnings topped up by their portion of the on-the-spot fines they collect.

These are mostly retired cadres, a group of red-armband-wearing, public-spirited people who are most visible around the National Day holiday or big public events to check on people’s behaviour in their apartment buildings or offer tips on ideological dogma.

So unpopular are the officials proving that the government is considering scrapping the policy.

“We introduced the policy to improve the urban environment, and it has been successful,” Luo Limin, the city’s deputy director of propaganda, told China Daily. “However, we have received complaints about the low quality of some inspectors.”

One of the reasons why the inspectors are causing so much public anger is that they work closely with urban management law enforcers, known as chengguan, a category of bureaucrat widely reviled for their often heavy-handed approach to dealing with street hawkers and beggars.

In an editorial, China Daily said the city authorities in Shaoyang were breaking the law.

“The right of enforcement is granted by the public to official law enforcement organisations. This right cannot be casually contracted out to the other people. The purpose of city management is by no means to make money through fines, so the practice of Shaoyang is going in the wrong direction,” it said.