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Can street vendors save China from a job crisis? Beijing seems divided

He began gaining traction last month when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang – China’s second highest official since President Xi Jinping – praised the city of Chengdu to create 100,000 jobs at night, creating tens of thousands of benches on the street, which usually sell food, fresh vegetables, clothes and toys.

The government must work harder to create new jobs by “breaking stereotypes”, Lee he said during a major annual political meeting in Beijing. “China has a workforce of 900 million. Without jobs, there are 900 million mouths to feed. With jobs, there are 900 million pairs of hands that can create enormous wealth.”
The suggestion that street vendors could be the answer to China’s unemployment problem was not limited to Li’s comments at the rally. “Mobile phone sellers” are also mentioned in his annual report government work report – which records Beijing’s priorities for the year – for the first time since taking office seven years ago. Lee continued to praise street vendors after the rally during a visit to the eastern province of Shandong.
Lee’s message comes at a stressful time for the world second largest economy. From January to March, China’s GDP shrank for the first time in decades. The unemployment rate has also deteriorated coronal pandemic started and the unofficial analysis suggests the same 80 million people may have been out of work this spring. Prior to the outbreak, authorities said they needed to create about 11 million new jobs each year to keep jobs on track.
But Lee’s reaction to the Chinese state media was swift and intense. A influx of street vendors into big cities would be “uncivilized,” CCTV wrote. a comment posted online earlier this month. He criticizes the idea, without mentioning the prime minister, which is like “going back one night several decades ago.”
And the Beijing Daily, the city’s official government newspaper, published various articles shotgun launchers as noisy, obstructive and capable of tarnishing “the image of the capital and the image of the nation.”

The impetus for technology

The idea of ​​sellers flooding the streets of high-tech metropolises such as Shanghai and Shenzhen has sparked controversy in China in part because Beijing has spent years cultivating the country’s image as an advanced global superpower. Xi The Made in China 2025 policy signature project has pushed the country to compete with the United States for its influence through billions of dollars worth of investment in future technologies.

“The hawk on the street is something Xi doesn’t like, as it tarnishes the image of the successful and beautiful China he likes to project,” said Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. of London.

In recent weeks, Xi itself has reiterated its long-standing push for high-tech solutions to China’s economic woes. It recently called on the country to invest in 5G networks and next-generation satellites as part of a plan to boost economic growth and employment.

“Efforts must be made to promote innovation in science and technology and to accelerate the development of emerging strategic industries,” Xi said last month during a meeting with political advisers. according to the state agency CGTN.
The smartphones are on display at a Huawei store before opening in Shanghai this month.

A harsh political reality

But Xiaobo Lü, a professor of political science at Ann Whitney Olin at Barnard College, said Lee’s idea had some value. China has set a goal eradicate poverty by the end of this year, and Lü noted that the automotive industry and other mediocre jobs are where people living just above the poverty line can “find ways to survive.”

Besides, he said, it may not be as effective as it once was for Beijing to develop large, expensive infrastructure projects as a way to tackle its financial problems.

China’s response to its latest major economic shock – the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 – has included large investments in highways, airports and high-speed rail lines. This time, this stimulus line is already saturated.

“In many ways, even measured in terms of per capita exploitation, China has become a world leader in infrastructure,” Zhu Ning, a professor of economics at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai and a professor at Yale University, wrote in research report earlier this year. “Therefore, the need for infrastructure has changed greatly compared to 2008.”

The recent economic crisis has also left China in debt, making it important for the country to focus on private consumption this time around, Zhu added.

Tang Min, a Chinese government adviser, recently told reporters in Beijing that the hawk on the streets will not only create jobs, but will also address the public’s concern about the number of indoor spaces amid the ongoing pandemic.

“But it can’t replace the ‘normal’ economy – what can be sold or bought on the streets is very limited,” Tang said. “The government cannot let it be controlled – it must be regulated as we continue to experiment and explore this option.”

During his annual political meeting in May, Lee was blunt about China’s problems and the extent to which some people may not be able to participate in the country’s high-tech future. About 600 million Chinese – about 40% of the population – earn an average of just 1,000 yuan ($ 141) a month.

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That makes the street vendor a “major source of employment,” Lee said he said during his visit to Shandong province this month, adding that such jobs make China “alive” as well as high-level industries. A state media report suggested that lifting restrictions on street benches – such as allowing road activity in urban areas – could lead to the creation of up to 50 million new jobs.

“Lee tries to tackle pressing issues with … a realistic approach” said Willy Lam, an associate professor at the Chinese Studies Center in Hong Kong, China. While the sales approach may not be perfect, he said, there may not be a better alternative to creating multiple jobs in a short period of time.

“Employment is an extremely important issue that can cause political unrest … Lee seems to be worried about the devastating effects of mass job losses.”

A Uighur man sells traditional flatbread to female shoppers along Beijing's Xinjiang Street in 1999.

Chang, director of the SOAS China Institute, said Lee was probably just trying to do his job by overseeing the country’s key economic policies.

“The pandemic has allowed him to play a more important role than the prime minister in managing the economy, something he has been watching most of the Xi era,” Chang said. “He saw how the financial impact of Covid-19 would require a realistic and more emphatic approach, allowing even encouraging street sales for those fired as a result of the pandemic.”

Local governments are moving forward

The public debate over the push for street vendors in China has weakened in recent days as big cities – including Beijing and Shenzhen – make it clear that politics is not welcome there.

But other local governments in less prosperous areas are tacitly promoting the idea. Lanzhou, capital of the northwestern province of Gansu, on Tuesday announced plans to create nearly 11,000 vending machines – a project that hopes to create at least 300,000 jobs.
Changchun, the capital of the northeastern province of Jilin, also promoted the idea. The provincial Communist Party boss visited street food stalls in Changchun earlier this month and praised the company for having a “low entry barrier” for people who just want to find work, according to the provincial government of Jilin.

“Street benches won’t really disappear completely,” said Lam, a professor at Hong Kong University in China. He expects local governments to move the plan forward, as long as unemployment remains a top concern.

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