China is reconsidering restrictions on street merchants, the Wall Street Journal reported today. The story has significance beyond whether residents of Chinese cities can find a good kabob stand. In recent years conflicts between peddlers and the police forces responsible for monitoring them have frequently spiraled out of control, with officers and vendors both resorting to violence. City management officers, or chengguan in Chinese, have developed a reputation for thuggery. With the economic slowdown there have been calls to ease the restrictions on street vendors in order to not shut off one avenue for employment open to jobless migrant workers. The Journal‘s story indicates that there is official recognition that something needs to be done. One question not raised is that of money. In some cities vendors can register already, but it is expensive and time consuming. If the system is to change in a meaningful way, then it has to be something low-income peddlers can afford.
Given the institutional inertia built into the city management system, major changes could prove difficult. Likewise, Chinese cities in recent years have been obsessive with reducing the jumble of city streets, sometimes at the loss of urban flavor. Will they reverse that for the sake of street vendors?