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Coronavirus presents unexpected opportunity for China’s struggling street vendors

In a bid to boost the economy, regulators around China have loosened restrictions on street vendors and food stalls.

Source: Unsplash

On a summer night, around a street corner in China’s southeastern metropolis Shenzhen, about thirty people line up waiting for Wang Shunchang’s well-reputed bing—a traditional Chinese meat pie—to come out of the hot oven.

36-year-old Wang, besides being a street food vendor, is also a local icon, thanks to his crisp and delicious bing, which he makes for a living. Usually, he sends a location via Tencent’s super app WeChat to his followers, before going out every night to set up his cart. This way, customers will know exactly where and when they can find him.

He started this routine a couple of years ago when city planners banned street vending for a more manicured and tidy urban environment. Wang was forced to play a hide-and-seek game with community administrators, switching locations every day, depending on city patrols’ movements.  

“A customer and her friends started the first WeChat group,” Wang said, with a hint of pride. “They all like my bing, but they couldn’t find me sometimes. This WeChat group did help me a lot.” Now, Wang has eight chat groups—in total, more than 4,000 people. Customers always tag him in the group, asking him where he is or ordering food.

Recently, Wang has had his hopes up that he could end his “rootless life”.

There’s always a long line in front of Wang Shunchang’s bing stall. Source: provided by the interviewee

The “Street-stall economy”, or ditan jingji in Mandarin, has become a trending viral topic on Chinese social media recently, after regulators announced relaxed controls over street stalls, even showing support for road-side businesses, in a bid to revive local economies hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this push, China’s Central Civilization Committee office announced last week to not include street vendors who occupy public areas into city assessments for 2020, meaning city planners don’t need to get rid of them for a “Civilized City” reason.

During his inspection of the eastern city of Yantai, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday told road-side small business owners that the street-stall and the small-store economy is a critical source of jobs, important to “China’s livelihood.”

“The country will only get better once markets, enterprises, and individual business owners thrive. We will give your support,” he said. He praised southwestern Chinese city Chengdu, during a Two Sessions meeting, saying the local government relaxed relevant restrictions and thus generated 100,000 jobs.

Per data from Baidu Search Big Data, searches for content related to “street vendor tips” surged in the past 30 days. Overnight, “street stall” became the buzzword on the internet, unleashing a wave of memes. People are discussing online what they will sell as a street vendor.

Chinese tech giants, including Tencent (HK:00700), Alibaba (NYSE: BABA), Suning (SHE: 002024), and JD.com (NASDAQ: JD), have also introduced a slew of measures to boost the “street-stall economy.” For example, on Tuesday, WeChat announced in a post via its public account that it was launching a new “fire” plan to support the digital transformation of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) by offering them subsidies and other marketing support.

E-retailer JD.com also launched the plan “Spark” for SMEs, pledging to source USD 7 billion worth of quality goods and provide each shop with a USD 14,109 interest-free loan to stock items.

A 80-year-old street vendor set up a WeChat payment code for her customers. Source: WeChat official post

“Being a street vendor of course is not that easy,” said Wang.

“I chose to do it because I cannot afford a physical storefront in Shenzhen and there are no designated areas for us to sell food legally. During the coronavirus pandemic, many of my friends quit the business.” He described the hide-and-seek between him and city administrators as “guerrilla warfare,” which is still ongoing.

In Shenzhen, the city Wang has lived in for decades, no related policies have been made so far. In fact, the Shenzhen government in May announced to ban outdoor barbecue across the city in a bid to prevent and control air pollution.

However, food vendors aren’t the only ones turning to WeChat to hustle their trade. Flower and grocery seller Wen Xiong, 27, is also an owner of more than five WeChat groups. Every morning, he posts pictures of fresh flowers and fruits in groups with price tags and informs his customers of the time and location of his street stall.

His goods are usually served at four or five fixed spots every day. He stays at every location for around 20 minutes and rides to the next. He even has a mini-program, which is still rough around the edges, for customers to order in advance.

Wen and Wang think although a “full-opening” of street vending is not very likely to come, some policies could authorize their businesses.

“I have a love-and-hate relationship with the city,” Wang said. “The city is dynamic, inclusive, and diverse in many ways. But as a mobile street vendor, life is too unstable.”

He has been considering his one-year-old child’s education. “If there are beneficial regulations, I would stay here and I could send my kid to a kindergarten in Shenzhen. Otherwise, I might say goodbye to the big city and come back to my hometown.”

For many of China’s urban residents, exorbitant rent prices and unsupportive policies can heap pressure on street vendors just looking to get by, forcing many out of the city. However, during the recovery from the pandemic, perhaps Wang and Wen can benefit from favorable policies meant to stimulate the economy and grow their businesses.