Ma Jianjun and Zhao Junhong work at their street stall in Beijing. Pic: Kyle Mullin.

Ma Jianjun’s grill sizzles as he cracks an egg on it. His wife, Zhao Junhong, alongside him, cooks a pancake. As they ply their trade on a busy Beijing street, it is not only the brisk trade that keeps these street vendors on their toes. At any minute the could be told to pack up and leave by government authorities.

Those officers are chengguan, and street vendors sweat as these agents go about their duties. They often give Ma strict orders to roll his stand away from the nearby intersection, where he can more easily woo customers but perhaps ‘disrupt’ traffic in the process. The officers, who are tasked with managing city bylaws, mostly leave Ma and Zhao in peace during the morning to sell their eggy jianbing pancakes. But by afternoon, the chengguan ensure they and the other vendors pack up and make way for the sports cars and sedans that clog Liangmaqiao, a bustling avenue in one of Beijing’s most prosperous neighborhoods.

Those rules vary between neighborhoods and cities, but the chengguan’s notoriety for rigidity holds steadfast throughout China. Still, Ma says he’s not bitter about their tactics.

“If there’s too many people selling on the streets, then cars can’t go through. So I try to be pretty understanding about that,” Ma says in a recent interview with Asian Correspondent, before adding, a little hesitantly: “The chengguan here, they aren’t too bad.”

Ma’s fellow vendors aren’t so diplomatic. In fact, Chinese citizens of all stripes have spoken out against the chengguan of late. And many have taken their opposition far further than that. Last month, in the southeastern city of Wenzhou, a dispute between a vendor and a few officers erupted into a full-on brawl. Nearly 1,000 rioters partook in the violence, surrounding a van that seated five chengguan. Pictures on China’s Twitter-like Weibo microblogging site showed the vehicle’s doors and windows smashed, and the people inside bloodied. That evening the local county government released a statement saying: “two of the injured remained in a critical condition”.

Rioters attack a vehicle with five chengguen in Wenzhou last month. Pic: Free Weibo.

Those rioters may seem gruesome and barbaric, but some say those actions were justified. A reporter for The Shanghaiist, one of China’s most popular English newssites, wrote:

“The alleged cause for the riots was the five’s brutally killing a civilian. According to reports, the chengguan ‘hit the man with a hammer until he started to vomit blood, because he was trying to take pictures of their violence towards a woman, a street vendor.’ This man later died while being rushed to the hospital.”

That level of retaliation may have been unprecedented. But it was by no means the first instance where tensions between citizens and chengguan have boiled over. A reporter for the South China Morning Post recently wrote about 19 officers who were injured by a Fujian province resident who threw sulfuric acid in protest at the demolition they supervised. But no account of chengguan brutality sparked more ire on Chinese social media than the one involving Xia Junfeng, a street vendor from Shenyang who was sentenced to death in 2013 after killing two of the enforcement agents. He claimed to be acting in self-defense but the state stood by its sentence despite a public outcry. Many Chinese netizens said the punishment was hypocritical, considering the fact that Gu Kailai (wife of once prominent politician Bo Xilai) was only jailed after confessing to murder only a few weeks previously.

But above all, those netizens complained about chengguan’s impunity, corruption and violent acts, often referring to the officers as “thugs.” The government has taken some steps to appease these critics— from a 2012 announcement that applicants for the agency will one day need higher qualifications like bachelor’s degrees (a stipulation that has yet to be widely enforced), to another in Jiangsu province saying chengguan must show more transparency in its chain of command.

“What has come to pass in Jiangsu is a little unclear. I haven’t seen anything yet emerge,” Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch (an NGO that published an extensive report on chengguan in 2012), tells Asian Correspondent of the eastern province’s nominal transparency initiative.

HRW’s report quoted academics who studied chengguan for years, along with dozens of witnesses to, and even victims of, the agents’ harsh tactics. Since the report’s publication, Richardson has intently watched as citizens grew bolder in their responses to the agents’ practices—from the heated social media debates after Xia’s execution, to the Wenzhou riot last month. Indeed, citizens’ reactions may be more self-assured, but Richardson says she isn’t sure what that exactly signifies.

“At times, it could be a wider critique of the police system, or corrupt officials in general, because chengguan seem less legitimate or threatening than uniformed policemen. But I wouldn’t claim to know what’s going on in people’s minds,” she says, before adding that speculation on such root causes is irrelevant in comparison to the broader issue, and its deadly results.

“Our reports, and recent accounts in the media, showed chengguan wildly overstepping its bounds,” Richardson says, before adding: “But the violence against chengguan is just as disturbing as the violence committed by chengguan. It’s no more acceptable for ordinary citizens to beat up officers than it is for those officers to abuse their power.”