BEIJING -- It started Wednesday morning as a squabble between an unlicensed watermelon vendor and the widely despised urban management agents who prowl China's streets looking for scofflaws. Words were exchanged, blows were landed and in the end, the vendor, Deng Zhengjia, 56, lay dead on the pavement in Linwu, a city in central Hunan Province, as angry bystanders photographed his body with their cellphones.
The Linwu police say Mr. Deng "unexpectedly fell to the ground and died." Witnesses assert that an officer struck Mr. Deng in the head with a weight from his hand-held scale. Hours later, when the police tried to take away his body, a crowd violently fought back, producing images of bloodied faces and generating another wave of outrage.
Mr. Deng's death has once again drawn national attention to China's army of urban management officials, known as chengguan, who occupy an awkward and ill-defined place in the government's apparatus to maintain stability. More powerful than private security guards but lacking the authority to make arrests or carry weapons, chengguan have for many Chinese become the most visible face of the government's authoritarian impulses.
Responsible for dealing with sanitation complaints, unlicensed construction and illegal peddling, they often seize goods with impunity, beat those who resist and issue what critics describe as arbitrary fines. Between July 2010 and March 2012, the Chinese news media reported 150 cases of chengguan abuse, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
Although Mr. Deng's death was not the first time a citizen had met a violent end resisting their efforts, it has provoked an unusually loud outcry, with some Chinese commentators likening the case to that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation two years ago after his cart was confiscated set off the rioting that toppled Tunisia's authoritarian president and inspired the Arab Spring revolts.
On Friday, hackers took over the Linwu government Web site, inserting the message "What is unjust is doomed to destruction, we will take back our country!" One of China's most popular bloggers, Li Chengpeng, said the authorities' response to Mr. Deng's death -- and their efforts to remove his body forcibly -- symbolized China's heavy-handed governing style run amok.
"This is in fact a metaphor for today's China, where the state is seizing property everywhere through a variety of means," Mr. Li wrote. "Businessmen lose their enterprises and are thrown into prison; an anonymous vendor loses his watermelons. Sometimes it's the urban management officers that seize the property. Sometimes it's the court, or the bank, or the unpredictable policies."
The ruling Communist Party's expansive security system is well equipped to ensure that such episodes do not set off wider unrest. But the popular outrage can only complicate President Xi Jinping's efforts to reduce the animosity that many Chinese feel toward party functionaries and law enforcement officials.
The centerpiece of that effort has been a push for officials to mix with the masses and gain a firsthand appreciation of their hopes and grievances. Known as the "mass line campaign," it seeks to address extravagance and corruption among party officials and reduce behavior that "divorces the party from the masses," according to the state news media. "Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the Chinese Communist Party's survival or extinction," Mr. Xi said last month, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
So far, the government's handling of the episode has produced even greater cynicism. Two Hunan television reporters who went to the scene were beaten by police officers and told they "would die" if they continued filming, according to the newspaper The Beijing News. Several officers then smashed the windows of the reporters' car and confiscated one of their cellphones.
Mr. Deng's daughter, Deng Yanlin, then took to Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, and angrily condemned the authorities, but a short time later, the postings disappeared. They were replaced by a suspiciously conciliatory note thanking local officials and asking "outsiders" to stop compounding their anguish. "Now the government has satisfactorily comforted and placated our family," she wrote.
As with previous instances of chengguan violence, in this case the state-run news media have tried to manage public ire by allowing relatively untrammeled coverage of the episode and running commentaries that castigate those involved in the violence, although they stop short of calling for a substantial overhaul of the system. "Condemn Violence, Not Chengguan System," said a headline in Global Times, a populist tabloid owned by the party-run People's Daily.
The outcry appears to have made an impression on local officials in Linwu, who said Friday that they had detained six officers said to be involved in the episode. Officials also conducted an autopsy in the presence of family members, The Beijing News reported, but the results will not be available for at least two weeks.
Deng Yongcai, the younger brother of the vendor who died, told the paper that he was not optimistic the results would be objective. The family, he said, "wouldn't dare go up against the government."
Patrick Zuo contributed research.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.