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Street stalls back in town: “outdoor business” revival to reverse COVID-19 slump

By Xian Jiangnan (People's Daily Online)    15:10, June 10, 2020

Photo taken on June 1 shows a night market in Kaifeng, Central China’s Henan Province. (Photo/Xinhua)

Dozens of vendors gathered along a 100-meter-long street in the Longquanyi District of Chengdu, southwest China’s Sichuan province, on the evening of May 29, standing behind booths or stalls and selling everything from clothes and shoes to fruits and local snacks.

Among them, twenty-something Liu Hao and his girlfriend were selling “icy jelly”, or bingfen, an iconic Chengdu summer snack. A few months ago, they were both laid off from a barbershop and beauty salon due to the coronavirus outbreak. Buoyed by the government’s loosened restrictions on roadside business, they decided to start running a street stall, as it was simple and low-cost.

In Chengdu, more than 100,000 people like Liu have started running similar businesses amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus, thanks to new regulations released by local authorities that allow people to operate stalls on designated areas on streets. For those who have seen their income fall in recent months, the policy is a timely blessing.

So far, at least 27 cities around the country have given the green light to street vendors and business owners to operate businesses outdoors in a bid to ensure people can stay employed. “The policy is a good way out for those who were temporarily finding it difficult to make a living,” Liu said.

The return of street vendors is a people-oriented policy aimed at increasing the incomes of ordinary people and making people’s lives easier, said Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times.

Survive and thrive

Premier Li Keqiang talks with a street vendor during his recent inspection tour to Yantai, Shandong province. (Photo/

Street stalls have existed in China since ancient times. The early days of China’s reform and opening-up was a time when they flourished, as the opening of roadside tea stands allowed many young people from the countryside to work in cities. But recent years have seen a drive to build “civilized cities”, which has resulted in roadside businesses gradually fading away, as they were usually considered an eyesore, dirty and disorganized.

However, in the face of the ongoing impact of the coronavirus epidemic and this year’s challenging unemployment situation, outdoor businesses have seen a new lease of life in China. While benefiting from the advantages of the “street stall economy”, namely a low entry threshold, low business risks and low commodity prices, it has also adopted an upgraded and standardized model.

“The street stalls in the early days of the reform and opening up were somewhat outdated, but its spirit of entrepreneurship and freedom of consumption is not. Today, we are bringing back the emphasis on this kind of spirit,” said Hu Xijin.

Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, has taken the lead in encouraging the return of outdoor businesses. On March 15, the local government rolled out new regulations that allowed people to set up temporary roadside stalls and booths, shops located near streets to temporarily operate in roadside areas, shopping malls to hold promotions in roadside areas, and shop owners to sell goods outside their stores. The city set up 36,000 mobile stalls, creating some 100,000 new jobs overnight.

This move attracted the attention of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who praised Chengdu’s initiative during this year’s “two sessions”. During his recent inspection tour in Yantai in east China’s Shandong province, he once again brought up the subject of outdoor businesses, saying that the government will provide support for stalls and small stores, which are an important source of job creation.

When enterprises and self-employed businesses on the Chinese market survive and thrive, the country will build a better future, said Premier Li.

With COVID-19 subsiding and economic and social life gradually returning to normal, more and more cities have begun loosening restrictions on roadside stalls and self-employed businesses in order to boost consumption and increase people’s incomes.

“For a considerable number of low-income people who have neither capital nor skills, the policy no doubt offers them an opportunity to change their status through their own efforts,” said Fu Yifu, director of the Consumer Finance Research Center of Suning Financial Research Institute.

New times, new trends

A bartender performs at a night fair at Sinan Mansions in Shanghai, east China, May 24, 2020. (Xinhua/Chen Fei)

As an upgraded version of the “street stall economy”, outdoor businesses have more scientific, refined and intelligent standards, Zhou Shen, a researcher from the School of Public Policy and Management of Tsinghua University, told People’s Daily Online. In a bid to regulate outdoor business, many places across the country have issued new regulations, such as stipulating specific operating hours and areas for booth and stall vendors.

Wuhou district in Chengdu has issued “green cards” with serial numbers, business locations, and operating hours and distributed plastic carpets to stall owners for free to encourage them to keep their spots clean. Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan province, has implemented an odd-even policy for outdoor businesses, allowing vendors with odd number plates to operate on odd dates, and those with even number plates to run on even dates.

On May 27, the Office of the Central Spiritual Civilization Development Steering Commission said that from this year onward, roadside booths, street markets and mobile vendors will no longer be included in the assessment criteria for the title of National Civilized City.

Meanwhile, the support of e-commerce has also brought outdoor businesses more in tune with the times, with Meituan, Alibaba, Tencent and other e-commerce giants announcing measures to support street stalls and small shops.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has released an assistance plan for outdoor businesses, providing more than 70 billion yuan (10 billion US dollars) of interest-free credit purchase to provide goods and financial security to street stall owners., China’s leading e-commerce platform, said it would connect nearly 10,000 brand manufacturers with more than 4,000 joint stores to provide quality goods worth more than 50 billion yuan (7 billion US dollars) for offline retail merchants, so that they can easily obtain low-cost and high-quality goods.

Automobile companies are also giving vendors a leg up. SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile, a joint venture of SAIC Motor, General Motors and Liuzhou Wuling Motors Co. Ltd., launched on June 2 a new microvan with a pair of falcon-wing doors that can be converted into a mobile stall or booth.

“Outdoor businesses are not backward, but an important part of the modern economic system,” said Liu Gang, director of the Economic Research Institute of Nankai University, adding that the greatest value of outdoor businesses comes from their ability to promote employment through entrepreneurship.

Stopgap or permanent?

Customers visit a toy booth at a night market near Hainan University in Haikou, south China's Hainan Province, June 1, 2020. (Photo/Xinhua)

The return of outdoor businesses didn’t happen out of the blue. With the COVID-19 epidemic being brought under control, stabilizing employment and ensuring living standards have become the most important issue for authorities to tackle. As a result, the promotion of outdoor businesses is seen as a much-needed move to cope with job losses and boost the economy.

The outbreak pushed China’s economy into its first contraction in decades last quarter, with GDP shrinking 6.8% from a year ago. According to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics, the surveyed urban unemployment rate in February stood at 6.2 percent, up by one percentage point from January, with small- and medium-sized companies suffering the most.

“China has 600 million people with a monthly income of 1,000 yuan (USD$140),” Premier Li said last month at a press conference following the annual session of the country’s top legislature. “We should put the protection of the basic living conditions of these disadvantaged groups in an extremely prominent position,” he said.

“The Premier’s remarks send a signal that a large number of ordinary people currently face employment and income problems,” Li Shi, a professor at Beijing Normal University and executive head of the China Institute for Income Distribution, told China Banking News.

For many, bringing back outdoor businesses is only intended as a stopgap, a special policy for a special period of time, while there are still many who see it as a long-term strategy that could boost the domestic economy in the long term.

Cai Fang, deputy dean of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, took an optimistic view of the future of outdoor businesses. “In the long run, we believe that cities should be more flexible in their policies. Everyone should be allowed to improve their living standards by working according to their abilities.”

Outdoor businesses make up just a small part of innovative urban governance, said Hu Xijin. “In making our cities more dynamic and giving our people more options to start businesses and consume, our cities have a great deal of potential to make a difference,” he added. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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