BEIJING, Jan. 9 (Xinhua) -- The theft of vagrants' belongings in downtown Beijing has prompted an outcry for the protection of homeless people's rights.
A group of more than 50 uniformed, but unidentified, individuals took the possessions of homeless people who were staying on a street near the Yongdingmen long-distance bus station Saturday afternoon, witnesses confirmed Wednesday.
"They forcibly took away quilts, winter clothing and packs of instant noodles that were donated by volunteers," said a bus driver who witnessed the incident but declined to give his name.
The driver said the thieves were brought to the scene in vehicles bearing insignia indicating that they were "chengguan," a Chinese word for municipal government agents who aid police in maintaining urban order.
Reports of the use of excessive force by chengguan officers are common to the point where the very word "chengguan" has become synonymous with violence in the minds of some Chinese.
One notable case involved Cui Yingjie, a fruit vendor from north China's Hebei province who killed a chengguan officer in Beijing in 2006 after having his fruit cart violently confiscated.
"I heard the vagrants cry 'thieves' when the vehicles left," the bus driver said.
Some of the victims voiced their grievances to Yu Jianrong, a Beijing-based social researcher who launched an online campaign last month calling on citizens to donate quilts and winter clothing to help the homeless survive the bitter winter.
Beijing is experiencing its coldest winter in decades, with temperatures slumping to minus 15 degrees Celsius. The city's homeless are still bedding down in the open air, however, seeking shelter only when it snows.
"An elderly man called me on Sunday and asked for help. He gave his name as Dong Jiangai," said Yu. "He said he was freezing and asked me to save him."
Dong, 70, said his bedding was taken by the chengguan, adding that he was warned by the officers to leave the area as well.
Dong obtained Yu's phone number when they met last month while Yu was delivering donated clothing and food.
"He is a petitioner from northeast China's Liaoning province and has eked out a living by collecting and selling waste in Beijing for more than 10 years," Yu said.
Yu condemned the thieves' acts as "ferocious."
"I don't care if the men in uniform were police officers or city administrators. They seriously harmed these people."
The incident has been widely discussed online. Many have voiced sympathy for the vagrants and anger at the chengguan.
"The homeless never did any harm to the society and deserve to be treated fairly and with respect," wrote "Miss Tan Tan" on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging site.
The comprehensive management committee of Beijing's Dongcheng district denied the accusation on Tuesday.
A committee official said on condition of anonymity that the officers took only "waste and garbage" and did not take any coats or quilts.
"The looting accusations are unfair," the official said.
He said the committee has frequently received reports from local residents complaining that vagrants have blocked sidewalks with their bedding.
"We launched a 'clean-up and aid' campaign on Saturday along with the civil affairs department, public security bureau and the environmental protection agency," the official said.
The official said they found more than 20 homeless people in the area and tried to persuade them to move away. "Most people left. One of them said he wanted to go home, so we bought him a train ticket."
However, most homeless have no choice but to sleep on the streets.
"I don't know where to go. I can only find another street corner to avoid being thrown into an asylum and eventually sent back home. I prefer it here because I have no family left in my hometown," said Li Zhen, one of the city's homeless.
Similar thefts have been reported in other cities. In 2010, about 200 migrant workers had their bedding forcibly taken away in the city of Zhengzhou in central China's Henan province.
A similar incident occurred in Changsha, capital of central China's Hunan province, on Monday.
"No one has the right to take away a law-abiding citizen's personal belongings, not city administrators or other officials," Yu said.
The government has an unshirkable duty to provide real help for the homeless, he said.
"Citizens' rights should prevail over local officials' desire to keep up the city's appearance," said Shenzhen University professor Wang Yongcheng.
"Cities should be more tolerant of vagrants and beggars," said Wang. "Disadvantaged people are found in every city around the world. Local governments need to step up efforts to help them instead of turning them away," he added.