'Street stall economy' in China falls victim to mixed messaging

Customers look at books displayed at a street stall at the Sanlitun shopping area in Beijing. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - Every afternoon at around 4pm, former Hebei resident Qi Mei unpacks boxes of fruit on a Beijing street corner and lays out her wares neatly.

She sells several varieties of melons, cherries, apricots and other fruit to the after-work crowd from nearby offices while keeping a watchful eye out for enforcement officers.

"My relative has a van, so a few of us buy fruit from the outskirts (of Beijing). He drives it in for us to sell and takes back the leftovers after we're done," she said, adding that she makes "a few hundred yuan" every day.

Madam Qi was previously an office assistant in a tour agency, but was asked to "take a break" when the coronavirus outbreak dealt a body blow to the industry.

The company never called her back, and Madam Qi has made street vending her bread and butter for two weeks now.

China has to figure out how to prop up its slowing economy even as it faces its strongest headwinds due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Official figures say unemployment stands at 6 per cent, but some estimates believe the number to be higher since it does not include migrant or itinerant workers.

Vendors like Madam Qi started surfacing in cities across the country last week after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said a "street stall economy" could help get the country's economy back on track.

While not backed by any official policy, his words sparked a frenzy, with people snapping up outdoor umbrellas, vehicles that can be converted into mobile stalls and portable LED lamps.

Some cities even set quotas for chengguan - low-level municipal workers in charge of enforcing order in the city - to recruit streetside vendors.

However, allowing such stalls undoes nearly two decades of official policy. China has spent nearly 20 years cleaning up its streets, with the number of streetside stalls inversely used as a barometer of how "civilised" a city is, the highest accolade a municipality can achieve.

  • Street vending first rung of economic ladder

  • As China came out of a state-controlled economy during its "Reform and Opening Up" process that began in 1978, entrepreneurs flooded into small gaps created by market reforms to sell sundries and daily necessities.

    For many, it was the easiest way to enter the economy, and a number of Chinese billionaires started out by hawking their wares on the streets.

    Mr Zong Qinghou, founder of drinks company Wahaha Group, for instance, sold ice lollies off a tricycle, while Alibaba founder Jack Ma peddled handicrafts to pay the rent for his first business.

    But there was to be no room for such hawkers as China became richer and its aspirations to remodel itself as a modern metropolis grew.

    About 20 years ago, it started clearing out the vendors, and cities have been assessed based on the number of street stalls they have - the fewer, the better.

    Authorities enlisted chengguan as an urban management force to assist police in enforcing municipal laws. But they are often reviled because of their heavy handed practices, beating vendors, confiscating their goods or even detaining them.

    In 2013, a watermelon seller was killed following a fight with such officials, sparking a public outcry.

    Authorities promised reforms by end 2017 but reports continue to emerge of chengguan abusing their power.

In an apparent U-turn last month, the authorities said local governments will not be assessed by the number of roadside vendors in their cities this year.

But state media quickly put a damper on the hustle and bustle last weekend, with official broadcaster CCTV saying the stalls were not "appropriate for first-tier cities", referring to metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Official newspaper People's Daily called for stricter oversight of street vendors, while the state-run Beijing Daily claimed the stalls were backward and "not suited" to the city. Even the term "street stall economy" ceased turning up in search results on social media.

The conflicting messages have led to city officials erring on the side of caution and choosing to shut down such stalls.

Outside an east Beijing park on Tuesday, several vendors were selling an eclectic mix of items, ranging from socks and underwear to fruit.

Before long, city workers and security officials descended on the makeshift market, ordering stallholders to pack up their wares and to stop crowding the area.

The stallholders said this had also happened the day before.

It is not that the government has had a change of heart, said economist Tang Min, who is also an adviser to the State Council, China's Cabinet.

Rather, such stalls which have always been a part of China's market economy, may not be suitable for every city, he noted.

"Certainly, this sort of economy is a temporary measure that's necessary for this time, but they have to be properly regulated, with stalls at designated spots with proper operating hours.

"This way, you won't cause traffic congestion that could affect the greater economy," Dr Tang said.

For now, Madam Qi is continuing to ply her wares furtively with precautions. She sets up shop in a quiet back street, and yells at customers who try to take pictures of her goods.

Yesterday, her relative was fined for illegally parking while unloading her stock. Her day's earnings will have to go to paying him back.

"It's just our luck," she said. "There's nothing much else we can do now given the economy.

"I'll just try to do what I can for now, but I don't want to have a full-time stall because who knows what else might come along."

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