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China's street vendor push ignites debate

Is China an increasingly middle-class country or is much of it still poor and backward?

Street vendors are seen by many Chinese people as embarrassing eyesores from the country's past, when it was still emerging from extreme poverty.

XIE Yiyi lost her job last Friday, making the 22-year-old Beijing resident one of millions of young people in China left unmoored and shaken by the coronavirus.

So that same day, heeding the advice of one of China's top leaders, she decided to open a barbecue stall.

Many people in China would say selling spicy mutton skewers was a step down for an American-educated young person like Ms Xie - or, really, for anybody in the world's second-largest economy. Street vendors are seen by many Chinese people as embarrassing eyesores from the country's past, when it was still emerging from extreme poverty. In many Chinese cities, uniformed neighbourhood rules enforcers called chengguan regularly evict and assault sidewalk sellers of fake jewelry, cheap clothes and spicy snacks.

But Li Keqiang, China's premier, had publicly called for the country's jobless to ignite a "stall economy" to get the country's derailed economy back on track. In the process, he laid bare China's diverging narratives after the coronavirus epidemic. Is China an increasingly middle-class country, represented by the skyscrapers and tech campuses in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen? Or is much of it still poor and backward, a country of roadside stalls in back alleys?

Ms Xie, who graduated last year from the University of California, Irvine, knew the matter was far from settled. She loaded her digital shopping cart with a grill, charcoal, skewers and cases of Arctic Ocean, the classic Beijing orange soda, in hopes that the barbecue business could tide her over until a better job came along. But she waited to see whether Beijing city officials would go along with Mr Li's call before she clicked "buy".

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They didn't, in a rare sign of disagreement among Chinese officialdom. A commentary in the official Beijing Daily newspaper ran a long list of the problems stalls could create, labelling them "unhygienic and uncivilised".

"The higher-ups are saying different things," Ms Xie said. "So better be cautious about placing the order."

Mr Li set off the conversation about China's prosperity last month, when he held his annual news conference at the end of the country's legislative session and directly addressed the job losses from the country's fight against the coronavirus. He praised the young people who, in the early days of China's emergence from the Cultural Revolution, opened tea stalls.

Then Mr Li pointed out that some 600 million Chinese, or 43 per cent of the population, earn a monthly income of only about US$140. He cited the example of a migrant worker in his 50s who couldn't find a job after working in cities for 30 years.

Underscoring his focus on China's less successful, Mr Li visited street vendors days later in Shandong province. "The country is made up of the people," he told them. "Only when the people are OK will the country be OK."

Mr Li's comments defied the Communist Party's usual narrative of untrammelled prosperity, which helped legitimise its rule. Initially, when the income figures spread through the Chinese Internet, some social media users - unaware of their source - called the numbers fake and accused hostile forces of trying to undermine China's success.

Many middle-class urban dwellers have reasons not to believe the numbers. China's biggest cities have made it much harder for low-income, low-skilled people to live there, virtually erasing them from the official narrative. For example, the Beijing municipal government coined the term "low-end population" when it drove many of those people out three years ago by tearing down the housing, markets and restaurants where they lived and worked.

Mr Li, who has long been overshadowed by Xi Jinping, the country's paramount leader, is an unlikely person to poke holes in the party's grand narrative of success. The last time Mr Li inspired so much buzz was five years ago when he advocated innovation and entrepreneurship, helping to trigger a frenzy of investment in venture funds and startups.

That was when China was feeling ambitious. Now it is facing what might be its biggest challenges since the Mao era. Its economy has slowed sharply because of its coronavirus containment efforts. While the government says unemployment is at 6 per cent, other estimates put it at 20 per cent. Other countries are increasingly hostile, a development some Chinese elites attribute to Mr Xi's premature positioning of the country as a superpower.

So "stall economy" became a buzzword, and Mr Li became the talk of the Chinese Internet. Some social media users praised him for daring to speak the truth. Many said he cared about the well-being of ordinary people, a subtle dig at the rest of the party leadership, suggesting it cares more about meeting arbitrary goals and building its power abroad.

Cities rushed to lure vendors to the streets. A few even set recruiting quotas for the chengguan, meaning that the people who once harassed and beat vendors now had to support them. An economist estimated that 50 million jobs could be created if the government gave more space to the vendors and farmers selling their produce.

Chinese media chimed in with stories about street vendors who make thousands of dollars a month and can afford luxury cars. They cited famous entrepreneurs like Jack Ma, co-founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, who peddled handicrafts on the street to pay the rent for his first business. Alibaba and its rival rolled out microloans and other efforts to support street vendors. Share prices of "stall economy stocks" - shopping centre operators, outdoor-umbrella manufacturers and automakers making pickup trucks that can be converted into mobile stores - surged.

Mr Li's comments also inspired gallows humour. Young professionals debated what they could sell now that their career prospects had dimmed. Maybe artisanal coffee shop from a bicycle-driven cart? Roadside legal services?

Then the backlash set in. Some commentaries about the income figures disappeared. On the WeChat social media platform, an article that Mr Li wrote in 1997 about a childhood teacher was deleted for violating regulations. The stall economy stocks fell to earth.

Official media began reining in the enthusiasm. "The stall economy isn't appropriate for first-tier cities," said China Central Television, the state broadcaster, referring to relatively wealthy cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Allowing the stall economy to make a comeback in those cities is "equivalent of going backward in decades overnight," it wrote. "It's a departure from high-quality growth."

But it was a necessary conversation for a country still figuring out how to provide for its people. The government set a goal of creating 9 million new jobs this year, down from 11 million last year. That will not be enough for this year's 8.7 million college graduates plus the many workers and professionals who lost jobs in the sharp economic downturn.

It also raises the question of whether China will forget again the hundreds of millions of low-wage workers who are still trying to scrape by despite their country's wealth.

"When they need you, you're an entrepreneur," goes a widely circulated social media quip on the uncertainty of being a stall operator. "When they don't need you, you will be an eyesore to the city's appearance." NYTIMES

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