From Conflict to Coexistence: Street Patrols and Hawkers in Chongqing

By Xie Liangbing
Published: 2009-04-08

From Nation, issue no.411, March 23, 2009
Translated by Zhang Junting
Original article:
[Chinese 1 2]

Decked out with shoulder poles, bamboo crates, wares, and clacking drums, hawkers hit the streets of Chongqing city to peddle shoe pads, socks, nail-clippers, ear picks, and other assorted goods. 42 year-old Huang Xiufang, who hailed from a village on the outskirts of the city, was one of them.
Huang earned around 750 yuan a month selling goods on the streets for twelve hours a day. And like many others in her trade, she had both children and elder relatives to care for.

She said that her limited educational background left her few options: "This is the only way I can make a living," she said.

Huang was among a growing sea of migrants who have returned to Chongqing from China's coastal areas, where employment has dried up. A month after financial crisis set in last October, the number of street vendors in the city tripled.

But making ends meet in the harsher economic climate was not the only stress facing Chongqing's migrants-turned-hawkers. For years they have played a game of cat and mouse with street patrols, a kind of low-level law enforcement official whose responsibilities included keeping streets clear of unlicensed vendors.

When street patrols detained vendors for illegal business activity, the latter's goods would be confiscated unless they paid a fine of 50 to 100 yuan. Huang claimed that she had been caught and fined several times, losing a full day's work each time.

One such patroller said of the conflict: "If we completely free the hawkers, they block streets; if we regulate them, people complain about how harsh we are."

In Chongqing, most patrol officers neither signed labor contracts nor had insurance. Most of them frequently worked overtime, in all weather conditions, and had income as low as 700 yuan a month. They often took out their frustrations on the street vendors they were charged with monitoring.

The Chongqing municipal government anticipated a rise in social conflict in an internal memo sent out late last year: "As the financial crisis deepens, the number of the unemployed will rise, and as such the tension between law enforcement and vendors will escalate further."

Tension did rise, until violent incidents eventually brought the issue increased publicity, prompting the government to consider decriminalizing the trade.

On August 17th, 2004, a 14-year old girl who was selling flowers at the Three Gorges Square in Chongqing was arrested by street patrols, who then held her by under water and beat her up.

Local government expressed disgust with the perpetrators, and calls for an opening of the streets to the vendors began to intensify.
In March of 2007, a number of side streets were opened to hawkers in Chongqing, with 443 selling zones established in the main city area and 11,169 fixed stands set up. Nevertheless, such a small number of stands could only absorb a drop in the ocean of the total number of street vendors in Chongqing.
Though it was easy to apply for a stand, people like Huang and Lin said they had little shot at being approved because priority was given to state-owned workers who had been recently been unemployed, and the disabled.
After these measures, another tragedy would lead to an even greater opening up for street vendors: On July 30 of last year, Liu Jianping, a street vendor who was arrested for blocking a road, was beaten to death by street patrols.
More recently, hawkers have seen better treatment, both in the selling zones drawn up by the government and on other side streets. It was in part the result of a new policy by which street vendors were tolerated so long as they steered clear of main streets.

"Before, I would run every time I saw patrollers. Sometimes I wouldn't even wait for people to pay me after a sale," said Huang, noting the improved environment.

Interview: We Can
Decriminalize Street Vendors

"Freeing street vendors will not only solve unemployment problems, but also soothe social tensions," said He Bing, an associate dean at the China University of Political Science and Law who has researched and written on the issue. His article, The Law Should Free Millions of Destitute Vendors and Law Enforcement Officers, gained wide attention.
He explained to the EO what kinds of interest groups were invested in keeping street vending illegal, and how legalization of could be a boon for urban culture and employment.

EO: The confrontation between law enforcement and street vendors has long been a hot spot topic, and sometimes led to violence and crime. Where do you think the problem is rooted?

He Bing: The main reason is because street vendors have long been criminalized. According to the Administrative Punishment Law, law enforcement should as least show their identities, inform the vendors of their rights, and collect evidence when enforcing the law. Street vendors however run like the wind whenever they see law enforcement officers coming. When the letter of the law is hard to carry out, and law enforcement must still do what their superiors ask them to do, they will resort to their own kind of law enforcement--including violence. And when violence is not controlled, it knows no limits.

EO: Many legal experts and sociologists, including you, have been pushing for the decriminalization of street vendors for years. Is it a hard thing to accomplish?

He Bing: In fact, it's not that hard to legalize street vendors. The key is admitting the legality and justification of the street vendor economy, thus ending the conceptual misunderstanding. Street vendors are neither the root of a poor city image, nor should they be blamed for disturbing the tidiness of the city. In spite of that, many places have chosen "build a street vendor-free city" as their slogan.

Some interest groups are not willing to change the current situation and maintain the game of "cat and mouse" played by law enforcement and hawkers. It was first industry and commerce departments' duty to regulate street vendors, but the job was later transferred to city law enforcement departments. Though illegalizing street vendors was a heavy workload for law enforcement, officers actually took the chance to hire more people and strengthen their power in the government system. Power means interest. Some local law enforcements made money by abusing their punishment power, while some charged "protection fees" and helped their own friends or relatives sell on the streets. Some enforcement officers went so far to ask: "If street vendors are legalized, how can we enforce the law?"

EO: Could you talk more about the legality of the street vendor economy?

He Bing: Generally speaking, the street vendor economy is efficient, and constitutes an important part of the market economy. Besides increasing GDP, the street vendor economy has many other advantages, such as satisfying the needs of low-level consumers and common people, for which cheap street stands are ideal shopping places for daily commodities.

Moreover, street vendors enrich city culture by creating a special street culture that appeals to tourists and citizens seeking to experience local customs. For example, there are street artists in Paris, while in our country, there are temple fairs and night markets, which not only provide shopping convenience but also become a unique part of the city. Street vendors can make the city more fascinating by revitalizing streets and efficiently using public spaces. Just like outdoor bars in Europe, street vendors in Asia also contribute to the diversity of city life, and enliven the communication between the city and the country. Most importantly, the street vendor economy can provide jobs. Facing the limits of money, trade and age, street vendor business has become an employment shortcut with low barriers to entry.

EO: How do you propose street vendors should be decriminalized?

He Bing: First, simply legalize street vendors, set up selling zones and curfews, so that vendors can be more organized; second, establish a street vendor self-management organization, thus realizing self restriction; third, provide government control and relief to coordinate the relations between street vendors and other interest groups in order to keep hawkers away from organized crime. The effectiveness of these approaches have already been proved in Korea, Japan, the US and Taiwan.

EO: If the street vendors are legalized, does that mean the street patrols will no longer be necessary?

He Bing: My research suggests that some cities' pilot projects have been doing a great job of street vendor management and set good examples. Hopefully, these models can be introduced to other cities all over the country. Street patrols will need to change their duties after street vendors are decriminalized, but street patrols were never just for dealing with vendors anyway. Beijing's street patrols had 14 separate areas of responsibility, including protection of the city's image, city planning, traffic system, public utilities, water conservation, and urban forestation--all of which law enforcement can dedicate more time and energy to.