BEIJING—Hundreds of students clashed with police and burnt cars in central China after street inspectors beat up a female student, a police officer and a witness said on Thursday, the latest in a series of public disturbances.
Students from several universities in Zhengzhou, Henan province, went on the rampage on Wednesday after a student vendor was beaten by several street inspectors as they cleared her unlicensed stall, a student witness told Reuters.
Last June, thousands of students from the same city smashed windows and ransacked their campus in a riot sparked by anger over the wording of their diplomas.
“I was also selling things on the street, and I could not take it any more, when I saw them even beating up a girl, so I joined the riot by throwing a brick at the inspectors,” a student from the Henan University of Finance and Economics said.
The Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy put the number of students rioting at 1,000. One witness put it at 2,000.
A police officer also confirmed the riot.
“A lot of students were rioting last night, and the situation was quite serious,” the official, surnamed Wang, told Reuters. “The general city police office had to send more police to help,” she said by phone, adding that the case was under investigation.
The girl lost her front teeth in the clash and five students were detained by police, the rights centre said.
Six inspectors were detained, two were sacked and four received warnings, the local Dahe News paper said, citing a government notice.
Unrest of any kind is highly sensitive in China, whose Communist government prizes stability and brooks no challenges to its power. But student protests are an even more potent symbol because of a legacy of student activism, most recently in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square.
Clashes between members of the public and the inspectors, known as “cheng guan” and mainly responsible for cracking down on unlicensed hawkers suspected of selling unsanitary food or low-quality goods, are common.
The inspectors were set up across China in the late 1990s to ease the burden on police and ensure cities were clean and orderly. But critics say they have become a huge interest group thriving on fines and confiscations with over-reaching power.
A widening gap between rich and poor, corruption and official abuses of power have fuelled demonstrations and riots around the country that are often sparked by seemingly minor issues.