Minitrue: Walk Back on “Street Vendor Economy”

The following censorship instructions, issued to the media by government authorities, have been leaked and distributed online. The name of the issuing body has been omitted to protect the source.

All previously posted content on the "street vendor economy" must be deleted. Please do not hype further. (June 5, 2020) [Chinese]

At the recent National People's Congress, Premier hailed the potential of resurgent street vending to address economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Bloomberg News reports on an apparent U-turn against this strategy:

Following a surge of interest in the topic on social media and sharp gains for local stocks associated with equipment needed to sell food on the street, local governments and state media over the weekend damped expectations that the kind of informal street selling once ubiquitous in China would be welcomed back wholesale.

A Saturday commentary by Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the Beijing municipal government, labeled the “street stall economy” as unsuitable for the capital, and said the city hasn’t relaxed rules on peddlers. Other state media followed suit, with some editorials arguing that there were many problems including food hygiene and product quality. [Read more from Liu Zhen at South China Morning Post.]

With China facing its worst economic slump since the 1970s this year, the government is pushing to keep workers in jobs and laid-off employees diverted into retraining or other sectors. At the same time, the premier’s endorsement of street selling at the National People’s Congress last month raised eyebrows, as it’s a form of commerce at odds with President Xi Jinping’s vision of China as a developed, high-tech superpower.

[…] On social media, trending topics have shifted from enthusiasm over the return of the vendor economy to those questioning it. The hash-tag “street stall economy” has been taken down from the Twitter-like site Weibo, whereas it was active and searchable a few days ago. Taking its place, the top suggested hash-tags are now “the heating-up in street stall economy shouldn’t turn into a fever” and “street stall economy is not suitable for Beijing.” [Source]

Much of China's economy was shuttered as the government fought to contain the outbreak, and drastically suppressed international demand has constrained its reopening. The country's official rate remains at just 6%, but The Wall Street Journal's Chao Deng and Jonathan Cheng reported on Sunday that "anecdotal evidence and economists’ calculations suggest that China’s labor market is in worse shape than official government data show." Moreover, "the country’s threadbare unemployment-insurance system covers less than half of the country’s urban labor force and less than 20% of ," leaving many scrambling for income. As NPR's Emily Feng reports, millions of former factory workers and other migrants have returned to family farmland. This fallback is used to justify their exclusion from formal unemployment figures, but WSJ's Deng and Cheng cited an economist and a migrant worker's concurring views that it is not a generally viable option.

Quartz's Jane Li reported on the background to the "street vendor economy" drive last week:

“China can only become stronger if its markets, corporates and small businesses can survive and develop! We will give you guys support,” said Li, making the remarks while chatting with a man selling malaban, a street snack popular for its spicy sauce, in the city of Yantai in eastern Shandong province.

Prior to Li’s remarks, Beijing recently sent other welcoming signals to , marking a significant shift from the past—when municipal officials used to relocate, evict or fine them as China sought to “civilize” its cities into tidy, shiny places that evoke the gadgets its high-tech economy produces.

China’s Central Civilization Committee office, a government department that oversees the implementation of the ruling party’s ideologies, announced in late May (link in Chinese) that the presence of street stalls would no longer be considered a negative factor in its criteria for selecting “civilized cities” this year. The assessment, held every three years since 2005, is one of the highest government honors a Chinese city can get, and an important political achievement for local officials hoping to rise up the Communist Party hierarchy.

To achieve that honor, officials dispatched , or urban law enforcement tasked with keeping order on city streets, after vendors. Under heavy pressure from supervisors, they were often accused of using excessive force and frequently ended up in violent clashes with vendors. In 2013, the execution of Xia Junfeng, a street hawker who got the death penalty after he stabbed and killed two chengguan during a fight, stirred public anger. Many believed Xia, a laid-off factory worker who took to selling grilled meat, was acting out of self-defense after he had been surrounded and beaten by some 10 officers. [Source]

The same year, watermelon vendor Deng Zhengjia was beaten to death with his own scale weights after chengguan fined him for trading without a license and took some melons as a bonus. Reports of chengguan now being directed to help revitalize the sector struck many as surreal: SCMP's Zhou Xin cited a WeChat comment asking “who would have thought the day would come when family planning officials would beg people to have a second child and Chengguan would invite vendors to go out onto the street?”

Last week, an online video promoting the "heartwarming moment" when a chengguan paid for his food sparked mockery from users noting the "high-level black" implication that this was a remarkable occasion. From rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan:

So moving, a chengguan pays for his snacks at a food stall! 😭🤭

Posts celebrating often (but not invariably) basic acts of responsibility or restraint are a staple of some of the less belligerent state media Twitter accounts.

Economic anxieties and the street vendor economy have become recent themes on the "wailing wall" of comments under the late doctor and whistleblower Li Wenliang's final Weibo post, where for months thousands of users have left messages ranging from political comments to personal confessions. From a pair of recent compilations by CDT Chinese editors:

@固执的西瓜瓜:… and then there's Chinese medicine and the cooling-off period for divorces. It's true that there are upsides, but sometimes people spend so long deliberating that they never make a choice. And then we need to be careful about this street vendor economy, which doesn't have much capacity for forming value chains or adding value, and can hardly prop up an economy as huge as ours. If they turn it into a fully fledged [political] movement, that'll send a really bad signal.

@田丽军doctor: Picture comment

"[Heartwarming public buzz] Recently, street vendors' stalls have fired up, and night markets have reopened. The leaping flames, the plumes of steam, the captivating scents, the noisy hawking … these familiar sights and sensations have sprung up in streets and alleyways all over the country. According to an incomplete count, up till now, 27 regions across the country have urged the development of the street vendor economy. Public buzz is most evident on the streets! Together, let's welcome a #summerofbuzz!"

@再见卡其:Business is terrible this year, Dr. Li!

@万福顺安:Dr. Li, I really hope that when I wake up tomorrow there'll be lots of shop orders, but … 😂😭 [Chinese]

@浅笑翩然6:Hello Dr. Li, now the people are allowed to open stalls. I hope the Chinese people can make a slightly better living.

@彩马哒哒:Recently things have been really difficult, I'd like to open a stall too … unfortunately it's not allowed in Beijing

@A如此生活三十年:It's because of the pandemic. We have no work. Now I don't know what to do … sometimes life is really exhausting …

@YourSanta:Dr. Li, remember when I came here in February and told you I might not be able to graduate? Now it's June, and I graduated successfully, and even nabbed a district scholarship. Ah, but it's really hard to get a job. I haven't been able to find work, all my relatives look down on me. Life is hard. I hope your son will grow up happy and healthy, and won't have all these worries. Good luck! 💪🏼 [Chinese]

See more related content at CDT Chinese.

真Since directives are sometimes communicated orally to journalists and editors, who then leak them online, the wording published here may not be exact. Some instructions are issued by local authorities or to specific sectors, and may not apply universally across China. The date given may indicate when the directive was leaked, rather than when it was issued. CDT does its utmost to verify dates and wording, but also takes precautions to protect the source. See CDT’s collection of Directives from the Ministry of Truth since 2011.

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