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

It began to gain traction last month when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang – China’s second-highest-ranking official after President Xi Jinping – praised the city of Chengdu to create 100,000 jobs overnight by setting up tens of thousands of street stalls that typically sell food, fresh vegetables, clothing and toys.

The government should try harder to create new jobs by “breaking stereotypes”, Lee said during a major annual political convention 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 remarks at the meeting. “Mobile providers” were also mentioned in his annual report government work report – which shows Beijing’s priorities for the year – for the first time since he took office seven years ago. Li continued to praise street vendors after the gathering during a visit to the eastern province of Shandong.
Lee’s message comes at a stressful time for the world second largest economyFrom January to March, China’s GDP shrank for the first time after decades. Unemployment also deteriorated after the end of the period coronavirus pandemic started, and unofficial analysis suggests that as much as possible 80 million people may have lost his job this spring. Prior to the outbreak, authorities said it was necessary to create about 11 million new jobs each year to keep jobs.
But Li’s reaction on the ground in the Chinese state media was swift and fierce. The influx of street vendors in big cities would be “uncivilized”, writes the state operator CCTV commentary piece posted online earlier this month. He criticized the idea, without mentioning the prime minister, as similar to “going back in the night until a few decades ago”.
And the Beijing Daily, the city’s official newspaper, published several articles that blown up stalls for street vending machines as noisy, obstructive and capable of tarnishing “the image of the capital and the image of the nation.”

The pressure on them

The idea of ​​suppliers 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. Shea The signature policy project, “Made in China 2025,” has pushed the country to compete with the United States for influence through billions of dollars of investment in the technologies of the future.

“Street hawking is something Xi doesn’t like because it tarnishes the image of a successful and beautiful China that he loves to design,” said Prof. Steve Tsang, director of the China SOAS Institute at the Institute for Oriental and African Studies in London.

In recent weeks, Xi himself has reaffirmed his longstanding commitment to high-tech solutions to China’s economic woes. He recently called on the country to invest in next-generation 5G networks and 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 strategic emerging industries,” Xi said last month during a meeting with political advisers. according to the state operator CGTN,,
The smartphones are on display at a Huawei store before opening in Shanghai this month.

Severe political reality

But Xiaobo Lü, Anne Whitney Olin, a professor of political science at Barnard College, said Li’s idea had some merit. China has set a goal eradicate poverty by the end of this year, and Liu noted that selling the streets and other modest jobs are people who live just above the poverty line, can “find ways to survive.”

In addition, he said, it may not be as effective as it once was for Beijing to deploy large, expensive infrastructure projects as a way to tackle its economic problems.

China’s response to its latest major economic shock, the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, included investment in roads, airports and high-speed railways. This time this stimulus line is already saturated.

“In many ways, even as measured by economic capital, China has achieved global leadership status in infrastructure,” wrote Zhu Ning, a professor of finance at Shanghai Zhao Tong University and a professor at Yale University. research report earlier this year. “Therefore, its need for infrastructure has changed significantly compared to 2008.”

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

Tang Ming, an adviser to the Chinese government, recently told reporters in Beijing that street hockey would not only create jobs but also address public concerns about the concentration of indoor amid the ongoing pandemic.

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

At the annual political meeting in May, Li was expressionless about China’s problems and the extent to which some people may fail 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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This makes the work of the street vendor a “key source of employment,” Lee said during a visit to Shandong Province this month, adding that such jobs make China “alive” as high-end industries do. A state media report suggests that removing restrictions on street stalls – such as allowing roadside businesses in urban areas – could create about 50 million new jobs.

“Is he trying to solve pressing problems with … a realistic approach?” said Willie Lam, an assistant professor at the Research Center of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Although the approach to the street vendor may not be perfect, he said there could be no better alternative to creating many jobs in a short period of time.

“Employment is an extremely important issue that can cause a political cataclysm … Lee is clearly worried about the disastrous result of huge job losses.”

An Uighur man sells traditional flat bread to women shoppers on Beijing's Xinjiang Street in 1999.

Tsang, director of the SOAS Institute in China, said Li was probably just trying to oversee the country’s key economic policies.

“The pandemic led to him being allowed to play more than the prime minister’s established role in running the economy, something he was sidelined for most of the Xi era,” Tsang said. “He saw how the economic impact of Covid-19 would require a pragmatic and more assertive approach, thus allowing, even encouraging, street vending for people fired as a result of the pandemic.”

Local authorities are moving forward

Public discussion of Li’s quest for street vendors in China has faded in recent days as major cities – including Beijing and Shenzhen – make it clear that politics is not welcome there.

But other local authorities in less prosperous regions are quietly pushing the idea forward. Lanzhou, the capital of the northwestern province of Gansu, on Tuesday announced plans to create nearly 11,000 street stalls – a plan that hopes to create at least 300,000 jobs.
Changchun, the capital of the northeastern province of Jilin, is also promoting the idea. Earlier this month, the provincial Communist Party chief visited Changchun’s street food stores and praised the business as a “low barrier to entry” for people who simply want to find work, according to the Government of Jilin Province,,

“Street stalls will not really disappear,” said Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He expected local authorities to continue with the plan, while unemployment remains a major concern.

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