BEIJING | They thought they were allowed to reinvade the sidewalks of major cities of China, in full economic crisis, but the street vendors are struggling to impose itself in the face of police officers on the watch.
If China, the first country affected by the new coronavirus, is recovering gradually from the epidemic, it is at the price of enormous economic implications. Millions of people have lost their jobs.
To make ends meet, the most vulnerable left with no choice other than to improvise street vendors, offering prepared dishes, underwear, toys, or even… small rabbits alive.
The image of Wang Zhipin, 72 years old, installed in an underground passage of Beijing and is desperately looking for customers for his socks.
“Business is not very good”, plague the old man, a former agent of maintenance from the central province of Henan.
“I have no other source of income and my health is too bad to continue to clean up the ground,” he explains to the AFP.
The prime minister to the rescue
In a speech last month, prime minister Li Keqiang has praised the street vendors who have permits, according to him, to create 100 000 jobs in a major metropolis of the south-west, at a time when the country is facing an explosion of unemployment.
“The economy of the streets and the small shops are important sources of employment (…) and are just as vital to China as the shopping of luxury,” he said.
The remarks of Mr. Li have been interpreted as a green light to the return of street stalls, yet banned in big cities in the name of modernity, which are combined in thousands of department stores and shopping centres tinsel.
But on the ground, many of the merchants on the street face the retribution of the police that has taken years to make them disappear from the streets, these displays — with brutal sometimes.
“I started this week to sell pancakes, but (they) I have already hunted there four times,” says a middle-aged woman, who prefers to conceal his name, in a district of the east of Beijing.
The prime minister “is a senior leader of the communist regime. Why the police does it go against the wish of the communist Party?”, questioned Mr. Wang.
600 million poor people
The press also shows refractoriness. The Daily Beijing qualified the stalls of the retrograde and “non-adapted” to the capital, where thousands of small shops have already been eliminated in recent years.
Outside of Beijing, some cities and provincial capitals, however, have loosened restrictions.
The subject rapidly became viral on social networks. The word-hash “That would sell you if you were a street vendor?” has received millions of views on Weibo, the equivalent of Twitter in China.
And the pictures of streets crowded with stalls and street vendors have become very popular.
Analysts doubt, however, that the street vendors are enough to revive the world’s second largest economy, where unemployment has soared this year.
The official rate is at 6 % (close to the record high of 6.2% in February). This figure does not reflect, however, that the situation of urban residents and excludes de facto the hundreds of millions of migrant workers, originating in the campaigns and more vulnerable by the pandemic.
According to the prime minister, some 600 million people, or nearly half of the population, earn less than 1,000 yuan per month (124 euros).
This figure is of a nature to threaten the sacrosanct “social stability”, also puts at risk the ambitious promise of the president Xi Jinping to eradicate extreme poverty by 2020.
In a downturn, “relaxing the restrictions is a good idea to allow the unemployed to earn an income,” said Albert Park, a professor of economics at the University of science and technology of Hong Kong.
However, this could prove counter-productive in the long term.
“Street vendors are likely to take the turnover of stores in hard, without stimulating total consumption” on which account Beijing to restart the economy, said Mr Park.