Street Stalls Make Unexpected Comeback As Local Beijing Officials’ Attitudes Waver

On a busy street corner near a subway station in Beijing known for its nearby universities and old neighborhoods, a 35-year-old woman who was identified only by her last name, Gao, unpacked a suitcase of T-shirts and hung them on her arms. “20 kuai (yuan) for one T-shirt,” she said to a mother and her child, who paused briefly to check out the Simpson Family cartoon printed on a shirt before moving on.

Without a makeshift street stall to lay out her clothes, Gao hung the T-shirts on her arms using plastic hangers. “So I can quickly hide my clothes when the enforcement police come,” Gao joked, while acting nervous when a man in a police uniform walked by.

Gao was previously a senior executive of the Hong Kong-based beauty company Y&M and was on maternity leave before the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the company didn’t call her back after the birth of her baby.

“I couldn’t find a suitable job after my previous one, and I don’t want to do part-time or perform manual labor,” Gao said to Pandaily. “Running a small business is the best choice for the newly employed in the current precarious job market.”

China’s economy gradually recovers from the shadow of the pandemic, not as quick as the country expected though. The surveyed unemployment rate in 31 major cities hit a record high of 5.9% in May, the highest point since 2013, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

Relaxed policies

As the country has been figuring out how to get its economy back on track, street vendors made an unexpected comeback in early June after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s speech during his visit to Shandong province on June 1. Li said street vendors and small businesses are essential to employment in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak and are the “vitality” of the country, verbally introducing the idea of “stall economy.” Without the support of written policies, his remarks were then understood as a shift of government’s posture on street stalls, which had been heavily cracked down on and prohibited during the pre-COVID-19 period in major cities as efforts to clean up cities’ images and regulate the retail market. The return of the once-ubiquitous vendors was expected to bring back economic vibrancy that was affected by COVID-19.

SEE ALSO: Chinese Street Vendors Enjoy Boom as Premier Pledges Government Support

Cities have actively responded to support the idea of the “stall economy.” Besides places such as Chengdu, Chongqing and Shanghai whose local governments have eased controls over street vendors and encouraged business owners to resume operations since March, Beijing, the country’s capital has also seen a huge amount of hawkers returning to pavements.

“I have been here since the news about supporting street vendors came out,” said Zhang, a mother who sold women jewelry and accessories with her two daughters. “I am a housewife, so I just want to do it for fun. However, I know a lot of people have to work during the day, but they are interested in making extra money through street vending.”

Vendors like Zhang make up a majority of hawkers on the streets. Most of them work full-time during the day, but are willing to make some extra money to support their lives in Beijing.

“We don’t think we could make much money by street vending,” Yan and Xue, who identified themselves as two employees at an internet company. “But we couldn’t afford our cost of living in Beijing without it. That’s why we are okay with working full-time during the day, and spending four hours after work selling socks, umbrellas and tissues.”

Market Reactions

The market has reacted positively to the “stall economy.” The SAIC-GM-Wuling joint venture automobile manufacturer has launched a new van for mobile stalls to support the “stall economy.” The new model is packed with a pair of falcon-wing doors that can be converted into a mobile stall. Shares of the Hong Kong-listed Wuling Motors soared 126% on June 3 after the company unveiled the new model as a sign to support small businesses.

SEE ALSO: SAIC-GM-Wuling Joint Venture Introduces New Rong Guang Van for Mobile Stalls to Boost ‘Stall Economy’

E-commerce giants and electronic retailers also pledged support. Alibaba’s “1688 online wholesale marketplace” is selling merchandise to vendors on credit, providing interest-free credit purchases of more than 70 billion yuan. Suning announced it would support street vendors by offering them free storage via its 10,000 freezers in stores across the country. Street stall owners can apply for free logistics and warehousing services within 3 km of the stores.

Wavering Attitude of Municipal Government

However, China spent nearly two decades clamping down on street stalls to clean up its major cities while improving food safety and hygiene. A week after Li’s remarks, the public frenzy has been contained by local officials in Beijing. Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the Beijing Municipal Committee, published an opinion piece on June 6, criticizing that Beijing should not blindly follow the trend and has its own way to ensure the livelihoods of citizens and raise the employment rate. “The efforts we have put into building a capital with a good city image may be in vain,” the commentary said. On Chinese Twitter-like platform Weibo, “stall economy” topics have been taken down while “stall economy is not suitable for Bejing” hashtag was the number one trending tag on Weibo.

Street vendors and citizens of Beijing are puzzled by the wavering attitude of the municipal government. They expressed their concerns toward its effect on traffic and sanitation, while looking for official guidance to regulate the return of street stalls.

“I am confused by our local government,” Zhang said. “I understand the state council’s message as we are allowed to run our stalls without impacting traffic, but how do you explain why eviction by police is still happening everyday? The government should implement a plan to regulate when, where and how we are running our business.”

“The Dingfuzhuang West Street nearby used to be a famous night market with all kinds of vendors selling street food and small merchandise,” said 24-year-old Cheng who worked in the media industry. “We were sad to see its crackdown last year. That’s why the recent comeback of street stalls is confusing.”

For now, Beijing has not relaxed its policy on street stalls. Public discussion of the push for street vendors in China has faded in recent days as Beijing has reported more than 320 new COVID-19 cases since June 11 and become the new epicenter of the pandemic in China. It is still unclear whether the enthusiasm for the comeback of street stalls will last long as a way to save the pandemic-ridden economy. The stall economy might be one of many measures to the country’s unemployment problem, but it is definitely not the most helpful nor a long-term solution.