China looks to revive 'street vendor economy'

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Cities across China have been rolling out policies to encourage the return of street vendors, where stall operators and mobile vendors sell food and small commodities on streets and other public spaces.

Stalls are seen in open space in the Chunxilu commercial area in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on May 25, 2020. [Photo/Sichuan Daily]

At least 27 cities have rolled out these policies, according to a tally by China News Service. 

Though the State Council technically allows certain street vendors at designated places and during certain time of the day, unregistered street sellers are prohibited due to concerns such as food safety and city beautification. As a result, scenes of hawkers laying out goods in carts or over cloth on the ground have largely disappeared from major cities over recent years.

However, at a press conference during China's recently concluded "two sessions," Chinese Premier Li Keqiang praised the city of Chengdu in west China for creating 100,000 jobs by setting up 36,000 mobile stalls, signaling an encouragement of reviving street vendoring. During a tour to Shandong province earlier this week, Li visited a local stall, and said that the "stall economy" provides a key source for jobs and demonstrates the vibrancy of China.

A state authority also announced in late May to not include into city assessments street vendors who occupy public spaces, roadside markets, and mobile vendors. The announcement was seen as a way to restore social and economic order and meet people's living needs.  

"Street vendor economy has always been a 'gray area' of China's urban economy. It has alleviated the employment pressure to some extent, driven the development of the tertiary industry, as well as invigorated the market and stimulated economic growth," said Ying Xiwen of a think tank under the China Minsheng Bank. 

The Chinese economy has been dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its GDP contracted 6.8% in the first quarter, a record low in years. 

Chengdu was one of the first cities across China to loosen restrictions on street stalls. In mid-March, the city issued measures to allow the operation of street stalls and mobile vendors. Shops and restaurants were also allowed to extend their operating space to outside their stores.

As of May 22, a total of 2,234 new stalls had been set up in Chengdu, 17,748 stores allowed to extend to outside space, and the work resumption rate in restaurants in the downtown area reached 98%, according to Sichuan Daily. 

In Wuhan, where its consumer spending such as restaurants and hotels were hit the hardest by the outbreak, the five-star Sheraton Hotel has recently extended barbecue services to roadside areas, helping both to restore business and maintain social distance. Other cities of Hubei province have issued policies to spur the street vendor economy and nighttime economy. 

Meanwhile, China's tech giants are offering help. Alibaba's wholesale marketplace issued a plan in late May to connect street sellers directly with factories, while offering stall operators with a total of 70 billion yuan of interest-free loans. WeChat's payment platform followed suit on Tuesday to help small businesses with digitalization, as well as offer them business guidance and marketing support. 

While praising the street vendors for reviving the economy and creating jobs, some experts have also cautioned against potential problems such as city environment, product quality, food safety, and impediment to traffic. 

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