Chinese Officials in Search of Goons Turn to College Students

Undergraduates hired to act as guards at forced demolitions in southwestern Guizhou province

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A woman is warded off by police as she tries to stop a demolition of a house built illegally on public land in Zuoling, Hubei province, China

The controversial part-time jobs never happened, at least in the realm of officialdom.

On Friday, an online scandal ensued after news leaked out that university students in the southwestern Chinese city of Guiyang were being employed as thugs to protect workers carrying out forced demolitions. Although students are hired as casual bouncers and concert security in other countries, the recruiting of Chinese kids to take part in such an unpopular and often violent action as a forced demolition outraged the Chinese blogosphere.

By Oct. 20, news of the students’ unorthodox employment had been scrubbed from major news websites. That didn’t stop online discussion on social-media platforms, however, as users railed against the hiring of students in SWAT-style uniforms to prevent homeowners from stopping government bulldozers.

“What shocked and saddened me most was that these students don’t have any burden of conscience participating in the demolition,” said one of the Sina Weibo users, named Yinyutaiheng. “China, is there really still hope for you?”

On Oct. 12, 837 university students were hired through a local security company to work as security guards during the forced demolition of buildings in Guiyang. The students’ job was to stand shoulder by shoulder to form a human wall at the edge of the demolition site, so residents, protesters or building owners couldn’t disrupt the process. It’s an excruciatingly sensitive task. According to the 2013 Society Blue Book published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, half of last year’s social-unrest incidents were triggered by land issues, particularly the forced demolition of people’s homes by greedy local governments.

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In total, 2,171 security guards, including college kids, were used to protect the wrecking-ball operators, together with 50 policemen and 200 law-enforcement officers. This motley crew oversaw the tearing down of 50-plus buildings that covered an area of 72,000 sq m. (The buildings were labeled “illegal” by the local government, an often arguable designation.)

The Beijing News reported that students are often hired for such work in Guiyang. In some cases, their teachers act as recruiters, bringing in their students to help them make some extra money. Working security at a demolition site can earn students up to 60% more in wages compared with a normal part-time job, according to the Beijing News.

But local officials didn’t count on the public backlash. As news of the student goons trickled out earlier last week, the local government first put out a statement denying any students were involved in demolitions. Then on Oct. 17, the Guiyang municipal government dismissed three local officials who were in charge of the demolition that took place on Oct. 12 — not for hiring university students, but for the vague offenses of publishing “false information” and issuing an “irresponsible statement.”

Still, by the time the scandal reached a national audience, censors had apparently had too much. A news blackout followed and previous stories on the subject were pulled from the Web. Weibo users were not impressed. Several griped about the punishment, which circulated online even if news about the episode itself had been scrubbed. “Isn’t the punishment of the officials too light?” asked one Weibo commenter.

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