Chinese cities and informal street vendors

Street vendor in Kunming, Gipouloux FrançoisWhen they settle in cities, many migrants become itinerant vendors. This requires little investment, but because of its informality, this activity is often sanctioned. In China, itinerant vendors have to deal with “Chengguan” controls. “Chengguan” refers to the municipal inspectors in charge of fighting delinquency and petty crimes. Recently, several incidents of conflicts involving street vendors and Chengguan have been reported in Chinese cities. These conflicts have been the subject of several scholarly studies: this month, Emmanuel Caron published an interesting paper on the subject in Chinese Perspectives. Chinese cities do not seem to have the same policy regarding illegal street vendors as that described by Jiang, Wu & Wang (2012)1.

Although informal street vendors may be encountered in most developing countries, they are also active in global cities. If you visit New York, you will certainly see Senegalese street vendors selling “I love NY” items. When it rains in Paris, Pakistani migrants may offer you cheap umbrellas. In these cities the authorities seem to be quite tolerant toward street vendors. There are, of course, some controls, and street vendors selling fake brands live in fear of police patrols. But in most cases, local governments simply do not have the means or the political will to address this issue.    

However, before formulating a policy on the question of informal street vendors, we need to think about both the negative and positive aspects of this activity.

Clearly, the activities of illegal street vendors may involve some problems.

  • First, there is the problem of quality and health risks. In the case of informal street food vendors, there is no traceability and no one can insure that the food is safe. Nevertheless, the success of the street food vendor depends largely on his reputation with his clientele; as a consequence, most vendors are careful to offer good meals to their customers.
  • A second issue relates to unfair competition. Because informal street vendors do not pay taxes, conflicts may arise with other merchants, the legitimate shop owners and licensed street vendors.
  • The lack of a transparent policy regarding this situation also encourages corruption. Informal street vendors need to have the local controllers in their pockets so that they will turn a blind eye to their activities.
  • To some extent, the opaque conditions of the illegal street vendors’ activities may boost crime. These migrants may become victims of criminal organizations, and because of the illegal aspect of their activity, the street vendors have no one to whom they can address their complaints.

However, banning informal street vendors from cities may be a mistake.

  • This activity provides a basic living for many migrants. Without it, many would slip into poverty and some would turn to delinquency.
  • Street vendors provide cheap commodities and meals to the rest of the migrant population that is too poor to buy other goods.
  • Street vendors may possess strong entrepreneurial abilities, and with the support of the municipalities, they may succeed in expanding their business and becoming integrated into the city’s social fabric. Beijing’s “mantou” street vendors may be only a local version of the American lemonade stand, but a successful street stand may turn into an official shop.

Instead of banning street vendors, local governments should try to supervise and regulate their activities. In the 80’s, the municipality of New York introduced a system of licensing for street vendors. A similar policy could be implemented in Chinese cities, thus enabling the authorities to control the number and quality of street vendors. Another possibility might be to designate special areas – streets or districts – where street vendors could operate, in order to reduce competition with official shops. The most important point, however, is to help these migrants to integrate into the city and to transform their informal activity into a regular business. The development of microloans, granted to the migrants by the local authorities, could be a partial solution to this problem.

Cite this blog post
Sebastien Goulard (2013, April 30). Chinese cities and informal street vendors. URBACHINA. Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

  1. Jiang S., Wu X., Wang S. (2012) “Cat VS Mouse”: a survey about the itinerant venders’living condition and their interactive relatioship with Chengguan in Guangzhou, Chongqing and Hangzhou. Sun Yat-Sen University Retrieved April 29, 2013 []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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