Beijing’s subway stations and public squares have long been the haunts of vagabonds, panhandlers and peddlers. The sight of food vendors and fruit vendors being evicted by the city’s chengguan squads is a daily occurrence.
But vendors at the city’s Tiantongyuan North Station have been especially lucky in avoiding the eye of the chengguan. Seated at the north end of Line 5, the station receives more than 14,000 passengers per hour during peak times, and nearby vendors benefit from that powerful traffic flow.
Reporters from The Beijing News recently posed as vendors to expose a protection racket that is keeping the subway’s vendors safe from the ever-present threat of city chengguan, who are assigned to confiscate their goods and chase them away.
Inside the Underworld
The 84th Acre of the Village of Dongsanqicun is located about five minutes from Tiantongyuan North Station. In spite of the name, it is actually an alley.
Reporters from The Beijing News set up their stand there on the afternoon of May 12. Within 10 minutes, a skinny man with a strong northeastern accent arrived to demand money. The man introduced himself as being surnamed Chen and claimed the entire alley was “his territory.”
“All vendors who want to work here have to pay rent. It’s 500 yuan per month or 30 yuan per day. Otherwise you’ll be thrown out,” Chen said.
When the reporter asked why the news team had to pay, Chen threatened to call the chengguan. Minutes later, a man who identified himself as “Xiaofei” arrived and began to threaten the reporters.
The team paid the 30 yuan daily protection fee.
When the crew returned the next day, Chen demand more money and said that vendors have to choose between paying or setting up their stalls by Exit B of the subway station. But at the exit the crew stumbled into more hidden rules.
On May 14, five strongmen came out of a portable “market administrative office” to inspect the reporters. One wearing a vest marked “Police” confiscated their equipment and returned to the office.
“We have to pay 2,200 to 5,000 yuan per month to the office if we want to run our business,” a nearby vendor on the snack street said. What the office calls a “snack street” is a narrow 40-meter run sandwiched between the bus stop and the side of the road.
Vendors working the nearby square said they have to pay 2,000 yuan per month and 5,000 yuan for prime positions.
The “market administrative office” bears no official logo or government iconography. Security staff working in the square identified themselves as being subject to the office.
“When vendors refuse to cough up the money, the boss phones the chengguan and tells everyone else to leave. Then they come in and bust whoever who was refusing to pay,” said a staff member who refused to be named.
As for the man in the “Police” vest, Deputy Director of the Sub-district Office of Tiantongyuan Liu Fei said he was an employee hired from the Beijing Security Service’s Changping Branch. “His job is to supervise the vendors in the square and report to the Chengguan if anything happens,” Liu said.
“I only know he is not an officer from our bureau. Anyone posing as a police officer will be dealt with according to the law,” said Huang Wenli, deputy director of the Changping Security Bureau.
Hole in Enforcement
The story of protection rackets cooperating with the chengguan is nothing new. Local administration have maintained such relationships since 2013.
When asked about the snack street, a spokesman for the “market administrative office” said, “We are just a company trying to organize a snack street with the support of the sub-district office.”
The sub-district office denied its involvement, stating that the vendors were meeting spontaneously every day.
For the chengguan, the snack street became a convenient area where they could redirect vendors who were found to be cluttering the street. While they never inspected the snack street, they did clear the square every seven days.
“As a department charged with urban management, the chengguan should be blamed for enabling the current chaotic situation,” Wu Bihu, a professor of Beijing University, told CCTV News’ 1+1.
Zhang Zhenmin, chief of the Dongxiaokou Branch of Changping’s chengguan, said his 14-man team is tasked with overseeing a 32.8 square kilometer area that is home to nearly half a million people.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter if we check the street everyday,” said a Changping chengguan member who refused to be named. “The vendors aren’t afraid of being fined. Their daily profits are much higher than the fines, so there is no way we can deal with the problem.”
Tiantongyuan has a comparatively complex makeup. The area is home to office workers as well as impoverished beipiao and local farmers, Wu Bihu said.
“It’s not just Tiantongyuan. Many urban fringe zones may have the same problems. It’s impossible to drive out the unlicensed vendors or cars because society has a demand for their service. The solution must be better city planning,” Wu said.