Millions of street vendors and their plight have once again raised public concern, as a draft ordinance, after soliciting public opinions for one month, is likely to bring about a fateful change.
From late July to the end of August, the draft regulation for individual industrial and commercial households - which implies to the mammoth number of street vendors a rightful status and can thus end their conflict with urban management officials (chengguan) - received a warm response on the Internet.
As many as 3,225 pieces of opinion from all sides, including the chengguan agencies and the industry and commercial administration departments, were solicited, making the draft rule the most intensely deliberated among the opinion-soliciting regulations at the same time.
The large number also highlighted how difficult it will be to bring about a result that is satisfactory to all sides.
Disputes and even physical clashes between vendors, who usually earn a bare life by their small roadside businesses, and chengguan, who disperse vendors due to their non-licensed business and maintain orderliness in urban areas, is a long-existing issue. Some chengguan even blame these roadside vendors for fraud and doing business in a hit-and-run manner besides holding no license.
The regulation said that street vendors may apply for registration as individual industrial or commercial entities, an expression read as a green light to roadside vendors' businesses. But as more specific information is still needed before being put into operation, it's still hard to say whether the ordinance is good news or bad for those vendors, a vulnerable group in this issue.
The registration step may probably be a dilemma for vendors. While many hawkers want a rightful status for the business operation, which is eligible for registration with the local industry and commercial administration department, they also worry the registration may bring the tax-paying burden to their small businesses.
According to Liu Junhai, a legal expert, the registration step should be a free choice, rather than a compulsory one, to vendors.
"Registration could be a help in protecting consumers' right to know, especially given the fact that vendors are all the time moving their businesses from place to place. But it should not be a financial burden on the vendors' shoestring budget," Liu said.
Liu's opinion was supported by many chengguan staffers.
It's neither possible to have all street hawkers registered as individual industrial or commercial entities, nor is it practical to outlaw all roadside businesses. The chengguan officials from across China participating in a recent national working conference also supported the move to make the registration optional rather than compulsory for the vendors.
However, the registration as a matter of choice would be unfair to those self-employed households who have applied for business license and paid tax accordingly.
So, how much the registration charge will be has actually become a vital point, which to some extent decides the role of the regulation.
Economist Li Yining has called for tax exemption for those individual industrial and commercial households with an annual turnover less than 300,000 yuan ($44,100) each.
Dominant opinion on the Internet also favors low tax.
Equally debatable is the draft rule's proposal that street vendors should carry on their business in areas designated by local governments or the industrial and commercial authorities.
Many online messages left by hawkers worry that a certain designated space can not satisfy all their needs for doing business.
Liu also has a different opinion. He said: "Business areas designated by government officials or industrial and commercial authorities sitting in their offices can hardly match the real market needs. Why not let the vendors apply for what they have in mind as the right place if it does not violate law or other people's interests?"
Free operation should be further promoted, namely, letting vendors choose where, when and what to sell according to their business judgment.
A worsening relationship along with escalating tensions between street vendors and chengguan staff in recent years has underlined the government's failure in managing vendors and their roadside businesses. The vicious circle must be ended with the establishment of a brand new management system.
In a word, chengguan lacks the flexibility to execute their duty of maintaining orderliness. Additionally, the rude way in which some clear away vendors is a case of exceeding their designated power.
Then there are still more questions: Are industrial and commercial authorities willing to issue licenses to scattered roadside trades? Do they have enough personnel to manage vendors?
Meanwhile, new and more scientific efforts must be made to replace the chengguan's "extra-official" duty in the foreseeable future both because there are still frauds and unqualified products exist in roadside businesses; and, chengguan's simple way of removing vendors has never solved the problems.
People would like to see how many of the opinions get adopted when the ordinance is expected to formally take effect later this year.
(China Daily September 8, 2009)