Late last month, top Chinese officials announced they would not mark local bureaucrats down for allowing vendors and hawkers to set up shop on city streets in their jurisdictions. Given the country’s post-pandemic economic malaise, many jumped on the financial opportunity, and calls — some in jest, some in all seriousness — to go forth and “lay out your wares!” richocheted across social media. Even academics got in on the act, joking they were so ill-prepared for the new “street stall economy” they could only sell their books.
They weren’t the only ones caught off guard. Last week, a number of major state-run media outlets tamped down the excitement, noting the country had spent years “civilizing” its streets, and cautioning the street stall economy may not fit metropolises like Beijing or Shanghai. A commentary published by China’s state broadcaster dismissed the notion of riding out economic turbulence by reviving street stalls as “trading a watermelon for a sesame seed.”
Ambivalence toward street vendors is not a recent development in China, where they were banned during the planned economy years as the “tail of capitalism.” By the advent of “reform and opening-up” in the late 1970s, however, many Chinese cities had relaxed restrictions on the traders, both in order to alleviate unemployment and poverty, and to facilitate the circulation of commodities in urban areas.
A breakfast vendor in the 1990s. From Kongfz.com
So it’s no surprise some have suggested street stalls could help China out of its current bind. What few seem to realize, however, is that the street stall economy can be more than just a temporary fix. It has the potential to solve some of the structural problems that have cropped up over the past 40 years while strengthening urban economies.
To understand how, first we need to know who’s actually involved.
Many informal vendors are migrants who prefer the flexibility and freedom of running their own stands to the low wages, difficult work conditions, and institutional constraints of factory life. For migrant women, in particular, the flexibility of the street stall economy allows them to balance the demands of work while still caring for their families and children. For younger migrants, it can be a starting point for pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams, and a way to gain business experience while accumulating capital.
Another key demographic is farmers, including those bankrupted by natural disasters and those who work in the cities during the agricultural off-season. The former sometimes become long-term itinerant traders, while the latter simply want to supplement their low incomes from farming by periodically selling goods on the street. Both are key targets of the country’s poverty alleviation campaign.
The third pillar of the street stall economy are two separate but related groups of self-employed workers: the newly bankrupt and small-scale individual traders. The number of bankrupt individuals tends to swell during economic downturns, while smaller entrepreneurs are being squeezed out of shopping malls and indoor wet markets by rising rent.
Then there are part-time vendors. This group includes self-employed store owners, who may periodically set up ancillary stalls to increase sales, as well as poorly paid salary workers looking to boost their incomes.
Finally, there’s the unemployed and unemployable. This category is made up of workers who were let go of due to state-owned enterprise reforms, and employees laid off because of their age or lack of skills. It also includes those vulnerable to discrimination such as the homeless, disabled, and those with criminal records.
In other words, the street stall economy isn’t just a way for the temporarily unemployed to make ends meet during periods of crisis. It fills a variety of social functions, from unemployment buffer to business incubator, while offering a path for people at the lower rungs of society to improve their lives. This is why it’s persisted for so many years, even in the face of periodic crackdowns.
But street stalls don’t just benefit residents on an individual level, they can also play a positive role in the modern urban economy. In addition to providing cheap products to lower-income residents, vendors help to circulate goods from major wholesale markets and suppliers.
Take the Guangzhou street stall economy, for example: The toys on sale in the city come from the Yide Road Toy Wholesale Market and the Jiefang South Road Wholesale Market; the clothing comes from the Thirteen-Hong Clothing Wholesale Market and the Shahe Clothing Wholesale Market; and the electronics come from the Huaqiang North Electronics Market and the Nanfang Mansion International Digital City. In short, the street stall economy acts as a sales outlet for major wholesalers and, by extension, the factories that supply them. In times of crisis, it can help restore the economy; in normal times it boosts economic resilience.
Restarting the street stall economy should not be a temporary response to the current economic situation, but part of the country’s long-term plans. In this, I think China can learn from Singapore, which integrated street stalls into urban planning, dividing the city into zones where selling on the street is either forbidden, controlled, or permitted.
Trading centers can be established to create commercial and public spaces that serve community residents and enhance community cohesion. To supervise food safety, officials can require stallholders to operate only during fixed time periods and subject them to a points system for violations. Likewise, they can encourage the formation of stallholders associations to strengthen vendors’ self-management.
China should view the development of the street stall economy from a more long-term and systematic perspective, rather than as a quick fix. In doing so, I believe it will find its cities becoming more dynamic, inclusive, and — if done right — perhaps even more “civilized,” too.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenaho.
(Header image: A streetside vendor waits for customers in Qingdao, Shandong province, June 5, 2020. People Visual)