The Criminalization of Poverty

We all read the NY Times here, so I’m sure you’ve all seen this already – but I just wanted to publicly acknowledge this fantastic piece by Barbara Ehrenreich on the ways in which simply being poor can get you caught under the wheels of the US criminal system.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which social and legal systems conspire to do away with the “publicly poor” in whatever ways possible, and this coincides nicely with having learned the term for a new (to me) profession in China a few weeks ago: chengguan.

I was asked if we in the US have chengguan, and it took me a day of asking around to figure out who these guys are – but once I did, I realized that I had seen them all over the city.

In Kunming (and presumably other Chinese cities, although I’m not sure), the chengguan are cop-like government officials who wander the streets mostly, although not always, in plainclothes. This article from GoKunming writes that their job is to crackdown on “unlicensed commerce” (read: people from rural areas selling random things on the street without a license), but their reputation is more that of a little mafia whose job is to keep public order generally (or to “preserve social harmony”, in the words of the Chinese government). This sometimes amounts to stopping and harrassing a rural-looking person who is simply carrying some fruit down the street, or shouting at and shoving someone who hasn’t had a shower in a while and has fallen asleep sitting in a bench around Cuihu. The person inevitably flees, and no one says anything.

As the GoKunming article focuses on, the chengguan are now facing some serious PR problems due to their acts of public violence, and are undergoing some sort of training to try to clean them up. I don’t know though – a “military style” training for one week that looks like this doesn’t really make me feel better. (What are they going to do with those little stools?!)

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