It began to gain traction last month when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang — the second-highest ranking official in China after President Xi Jinping — praised the city of Chengdu for creating 100,000 jobs overnight by setting up tens of thousands of street stalls, which typically sell food, fresh vegetables, clothes and toys.
The push for tech
The idea of vendors flooding the streets of high tech metropolises like Shanghai and Shenzhen caused controversy in China in part because Beijing has spent years cultivating the country’s image as an advanced global superpower. Xi’s signature policy project, “Made in China 2025,” has pushed the country to compete with the United States for influence through billions of dollars worth of investment in the technologies of the future.
“Street hawking is something Xi does not like, as it tarnishes the image of the successful and beautiful China he likes to project,” said Professor Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Xi himself in recent weeks has reiterated his longstanding push for high tech solutions to China’s economic woes. He has recently called for the country to invest in 5G networks and next-generation satellites as part of a plan to boost economic growth and employment.
A harsh political reality
Besides, he said, it might not be as effective as it once was for Beijing to roll out large, expensive infrastructure projects as a way to address its economic troubles.
China’s response to its last major economic shock — the 2008-2009 global financial crisis — involved investing heavily in roads, airports and high speed rail lines. This time, that line of stimulus has already been saturated.
The last financial crisis also left China with a lot of debt, making it important for the country to focus this time on private consumption, Zhu added.
Tang Min, a Chinese government advisor, recently told reporters in Beijing that street hawking would not only create jobs but also address public concern about indoor crowding amid the ongoing pandemic.
“But it can’t replace the ‘regular’ economy — what can be sold or bought on the streets is very limited,” Tang said. “The government can’t let it grow unchecked — it has to be regulated as we continue to experiment with and explore this option.”
During May’s annual political gathering, Li 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. Some 600 million Chinese — about 40% of the population — earn an average of just 1,000 yuan ($141) per month.
“Li is trying to address the pressing issues with a … realistic approach,” said Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies. While the street vendor approach may not be perfect, he said, there might not be a better alternative for creating a lot of jobs in a short amount of time.
“Employment is an extremely important issue that can trigger political upheaval … Li is apparently worried about the disastrous outcome of massive job losses.”
Tsang, the SOAS China Institute director, said that Li is likely just trying to do his job overseeing the country’s key economic policies.
“The pandemic had resulted in him being allowed to play more of the well-established role of the premier in running the economy, something from which he was side-tracked most of the time in the Xi era,” Tsang said. “He saw how the economic impact of Covid-19 would require a pragmatic and a more emphatic approach, hence allowing, even encouraging, street vending for those laid off as a result of the pandemic. “
Local governments forge ahead
Public discussion of Li’s push for street vendors in China has faded in recent days as major cities — including Beijing and Shenzhen — make clear that the policy is not welcome there.
“Street stalls won’t totally disappear in reality,” said Lam, the Chinese University of Hong Kong professor. He expected local governments to push ahead with the plan as long as unemployment remains a top concern.