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In China, A Post-Pandemic City Model Built On Street Vendors

Chinese officials are realizing that the 'soul' of a city is key to strength and prosperity.

People buying food at a snack street in Haikou
People buying food at a snack street in Haikou


CHENGDU — In order to ease the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, authorities in China's western city of Chengdu have decided to temporarily allow impromptu stalls for food and other goods to be set up along local streets.

The measure was praised, rather unexpectedly, by Chinese premier Li Keqiang during the National People's Congress taking place at the end of May, celebrating that "the creation of 36,000 mobile stalls has solved the unemployment of 100,000 people overnight."

Just when the public was speculating that other cities would follow with similar measures, another central government decree announced that street vendors' occupation of roads and marketplaces won't be used this year in assessing the "civilized city" performance indicator implemented since 2005.

The announcement has sparked enthusiastic reaction from the public, and especially from lovers of street food.

But will these government initiatives also offer a real economic solution? "Guaranteeing employment" has been the number one official priority since China began to emerge from the coronavirus health crisis. Behind each employed person stands a family. And for small hawkers selling food or wares in the open air, the economic impact of the epidemic has been particularly severe.

Good news for lovers of street food — Photo: Guo Cheng/Xinhua/ZUMA

However, the reason why the Chinese public welcomes the government's measure goes beyond assuring employment and people's livelihood. This action has brought to people's attention the fact that our country's initiatives to make cities more orderly, standardized and cosmopolitan — and much of urban planning and management are founded on such thinking — those people making their livelihood selling on the street have been overlooked. Yet the work and lives of these people embody the idea of human dignity and decency and highlights an ordinary person's hopes and struggles when they come to live in a city.

After the lockdown, we couldn't be more eager to see the bubbling life of a city return.

The original meaning of city is a place where people come together to buy and sell. During the outbreak, the distance between people was rigorously spread as far apart as possible. Even when passing a stranger, we turn away our heads to avoid each other.

After experiencing the silence and emptiness of a city during the pandemic, we couldn't be more eager to see the bubbling life of a city return, including the sounds and smells of even more street stalls. When one stops to listen to the hawkers' yelling and selling, even if it's a wordless exchange, it remains nonetheless a real encounter between people.

Not only does a street teeming with vibrant business help those at the bottom of society to make a living, but it's also what touches people's hearts — it's their whole connection to a city. In the past few years, many Chinese cities have seen roads widened and an ever more modern skyline. We like the prosperity of what this symbolizes, but we know something is missing.

A city should be inclusive for all who live there and, in particular, the dreams of those at the bottom of society. Only cities that have a vivid life and a soul can truly count on a future.

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