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Shanghai Should Keep Its Promise to Vendors
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The Shanghai government is probably finding it hard to keep a promise it made months ago: to be more tolerant to street vendors starting this month.

The management guide on vending in Shanghai, which was supposed to meet the public before May Day, has been postponed. No one from the city appearance and sanitation bureau, entrusted to mastermind the guide, or from the municipal people's congress and local communities seems to know when the new rule will be finalized.

The whole thing appears much more complex than previously conceived. It involves government departments from police, taxation, industrial and commercial administration, urban management as well as the communities. Perhaps no department wants the hot potato of street vendors.

While the bureaus are haggling over their responsibilities, the municipal government should take the initiative to solve the thorny issue, especially when all other cities and provinces are waiting for Shanghai's exemplary move.

To be frank, there is arduous work to be done to pave the way for the return of street vendors, or just the comeback of a small group of them.

The local people's congress - the lawmaker - needs to sort out relevant laws and regulations so that management of vendors is handled with the rule of law instead of random penalties.

It may be extremely difficult to convince local residents, who hold the decisive vote in allowing vendors into their neighborhoods, to make their already-noisy communities home to vendors. Many people love to visit vendors - the shoe repairman, bicycle repairman and snack pedlars - but few want them right next door.

Local governments may also find it troubling if vendors begin to take over the streets. The image of their area may not meet the finicky requirement of cleanliness and orderliness.

The recent closure of the popular Wujiang Road food street in downtown Shanghai is a clear indication of such rationale. The popular destination for Chinese and expats, listed in most tour guidebooks, simply vanished overnight as a demonstration of government resolve to clean up the street, but it surely does not show the city's tolerance to vendors

Many of us are nostalgic for the street cries from vendors that were part of our sweet childhood memories and vivid community life - things that are sadly missing for people dwelling in today's lifeless concrete jungles. Movies about Shanghai's heyday in the 1920s and 30s all include lively street scenes with vendors.

Letting them back to the streets, as promised by the Shanghai government, should not be regarded as an act of mercy. It is simply the right vendors have long deserved.

In fact, what we should ask is why Shanghai and many other big cities in China have been so harsh on vendors for the past few decades, treating them like criminals and creating such hostility between vendors and those government "urban appearance patrols", or the chengguan officers.

With the modernization drive started in Shanghai and other Chinese cities, vendors once crisscrossing the city's maze of streets and crooked lanes were suddenly declared illegal, accused of tarnishing the image of our great cities.

Some cities have gone to the extreme of pledging that, in three to five years, they will become a city without street vendors.

That could be a huge achievement - an achievement to make their cities less human. That will also put them way ahead of top international cities, such as New York, London and Paris, in eliminating vendors.

Of course, these Chinese cities are fully capable of doing this. All they have to do is hire 10 or 100 times more chengguan officers at taxpayers' expense.

The crusade against street traders has created many tragedies, culminating in the fatal stabbing of Beijing chengguan officer Li Zhiqiang last year by vendor Cui Yingjie.

It was a tragedy for both families, with the 23-year-old farmer-turned-vendor sentenced to death with two years' probation last month. It was a tragedy that would never have happened had such hostility not been conceived in the first place between those patrols and vendors.

I am not arguing total freedom for vendors. Vendors that sell unsanitary food, pedal pirated books and DVDs and fake goods, and harass passers-by should be stopped and punished.

I am arguing that vendors who cause no public hazard should be allowed to make a living.

Even for some problematic vendors, a proper approach should be adequate management, for instance, creating a space for this underprivileged population to make their meager income through lawful means. Taking away their only way of feeding their families and raising their children is surely the worst decision.

Shanghai should not disappoint these vendors and the rest of the nation, which had nothing but praise for its original decision.

A large city like Shanghai can definitely accommodate 50,000 street vendors - the number of "illegal vendors" stated by a local official.

(China Daily May 23, 2007)

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