The Revival of Street Vending in China

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Photograph: zhang kaiyv via Pexels

Some see glamour in it. Pecks of colours swim, swarm, and spawn a larger-than-life mosaic of the faceless working class, a constituent that theoretically defines Communist China. While its glamour is up for debate, its clamour is not. Somewhat of a lost twin to the Western world’s yard sale, this glamorous, clamorous Chinese creature is street-vending. And it’s now making a dramatic comeback.

Revisiting Sunset Boulevard

Street vending saw its heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s when China was undergoing economic reforms. However, with the hygiene, safety and noise concerns that followed, street vending was deemed a hotbed for urban pollution and ruled a disgrace. Chengguan (urban management officers) would roam the streets and haul away vendors. That’s why vendors developed swift agility in setting up and taking down their mobile businesses to keep it going.

Regardless, with the government’s diligence in wiping the country clean of such backward sight and forging a new image of technology and luxury, street vending had become a thing of the past - until late May 2020. 

Resurrecting the Bygone Charm/Chaos

Amidst widespread unemployment exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, people turned to the foregone taboo for relief, with official encouragement by Premier Li Keqiang, who praised street vending to be “earthly fireworks” (人间的烟火) and “China’s lifeline” (中国的生机).

It first started in the metropolitan city of Chengdu. With the setup of 36,000 mobile hawker stalls by the roadside, 100,000 jobs were created in a snap. A video by ChinaMaid shows that a food stand in Guangzhou could generate close to 10,000 yuan per month, which is ten times more than what some 600 million people in China are earning, according to South China Morning Post. It’s no wonder that some people see street vending as a beacon of hope in today’s uncertain waters.

Re-Examining the Comeback

Yet some are unimpressed and even wary of the revival. President Xi Jinping is one of them. Beijing Daily, the official mouthpiece of Beijing authorities, declared that the street vending economy is not for Beijing. Shenzhen echoed the same sentiment.

Is street vending really a sustainable solution for poverty relief? Even if it is just for the time being, how can China ensure that the undesirable consequences - such as traffic obstruction, unsafe products, and noise pollution - won’t bubble up the same way it did in the past? How will the street vending revival play out? Let’s wait and see.

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Wetopia New Media is a Vancouver-based digital marketing and public relations agency. We create consistent, relevant, and inclusive social media content and campaigns to bridge the gap between Chinese and non-Chinese audiences.

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