China’s Much-Reviled Chengguan, Coming to an American University Near You

China's infamous urban enforcers are branching out

The two Chinese students on trial

The two Chinese students (Meng Long Li, left; Shan Gao, right) were charged with assaulting another Chinese student at a karaoke club.

Known as China’s controversial Law Enforcement Bureau, chengguan are notorious for terrorizing food peddlers and homeless people off the street. They have been so successful, in fact, it looks like they are expanding all the way to US university campuses.

The trial of two Michigan State Chinese students, identified as members of the University’s chengguan “social club”, has concluded with a not guilty verdict and a hung jury, respectively. The two students, identified as 21-year-old Shan Gao and 24-year-old Meng Long Li, were charged with brutally beating another Chinese student at a local karaoke bar.

In what prosecutors referred to as “fear, intimidation and physical violence to gain notoriety among the Asian community on Michigan State’s campus”, Gao and Li used their status as prominent members of the school’s chengguan to intimidate other members of the Asian community. While in China, the chengguan title conjures all sorts of negative connotations, Michigan State viewed them as simply another organized student gang.

The victim, who was attacked on Chinese New Year’s Eve 2014, testified that Li struck him in the head with a plastic pitcher until it broke. Gao allegedly blocked the victim’s friends from intervening. The attack left the victim with a large gash on his head that required 10 staples and three stitches. The victim further testified that members of the University’s chengguan, including Gao, drove around in luxury cars with chengguan stickers to clearly identify membership.

The prosecution vehemently disagreed with the defence’s characterization of chengguan as a simple “social group”, and that the assault was nothing more than a disagreement between two students. Rather, the prosecution argued that the group was a “gang”, and that Li and Gao flaunted their gang colours to let everyone know that they “ran the Chinese scene on campus.” Tuition at the university for international students is more than $40,000 a year, and over 60 percent of the school’s international students come from China.

In the end, Gao was found not guilty, and the jury was unable to come to a decision regarding Li. The prosecution is now contemplating whether or not to pursue a new trial.  Either way, it would appear that regardless of your characterization of chengguan, they have officially reached University campuses stateside.

Natalie Wang

Journalist based in Hong Kong, writes about China and wine.