Hawkers back on China’s streets as economic recovery teeters

(Source: Reuters/Aly Song)

Wang Chunxiang pushes a cart around busy areas of Shanghai, playing cat and mouse with the authorities as she tries to sell pastries. The jobs she could get do not pay enough for her to make ends meet.

“Salaries are too low,” said the 43-year-old, after serving a customer steamed sweet rice cakes from a wok.

“At my age, without much knowledge, I could only earn US$868 per month as a cleaning lady. Shanghai rent is so expensive. Even low quality homes are $282-$423,” said Wang, who recently resumed hawking after a six-year break.

She can earn about $1,400 in a good month selling pastries for $2.12 a box.

As life in China returns to normal after the pandemic, hawkers are hitting the streets. They look to at least supplement their income amid an uneven economic recovery in which jobs and wage growth has been sluggish.

For decades, street stalls and hawkers – common elsewhere in Asia – have been banned or tightly regulated in many Chinese cities, with authorities seeing them as unsightly.

Source: Reuters/Nicoco Chan

There are signs, however, that local governments are giving hawkers more leeway, a trend expected to continue.

Zibo in eastern China became a media sensation this month after a rush of tourists visiting street food stalls forced authorities to issue warnings about overcrowding.

The tech hub of Shenzhen, which banned hawking in 1999, will ease restrictions on street stalls from September. Shanghai is seeking public opinion on revising hawker regulations and in April said it had set up 74 spots for vendors.

Lanzhou in the northwest said this month it would designate areas for street stalls as it sought to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

“It’s natural for some local governments to trial street vending as they are facing great pressure in stabilising local economies and the job market,” said Bruce Pang, chief economist at Jones Lang Lasalle.

Household income grew 3.8 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter, lagging broader economic growth. The job market remains sluggish with youth unemployment at a record high.

Economic pressure is forcing hawkers to risk fines or having their products confiscated.

Wang Xuexue, 28, who sells flowers off her scooter in Shanghai, prefers to hawk her goods away from designated areas, which she says are out-of-the-way and charge fees.

“Of course authorities try to catch us. Otherwise we wouldn’t run so fast,” said Wang Xuexue, who worked in a flower shop until recently.

Even in Beijing, which President Xi Jinping said should remain above all a “political centre” without a street economy, hawkers were seen at tourist spots.

Lu Wei, a pen seller, had his own store before the pandemic but cancelled the lease in 2020 as sales dropped and he could no longer afford rent. He now touts his 30-yuan pens along Beijing’s Houhai lake, although business is slow.

“People have no money in their pockets. Even if they do, they don’t want to spend it,” Lu said.

  • Reporting by Nicoco Chan, Ellen Zhang and the Shanghai bureau; Editing by Sam Holmes, of Reuters.

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