Premier Li Keqiang's unusual plan to rely on street vendors to boost China's economy has drawn a mixed response. But it is a short-term shock absorber rather than a proxy power play, says global affairs correspondent Benjamin Kang Lim (below).
Coming from a poor peasant family in China's northern province of Hebei, Cui Yingjie scraped a living in Beijing working the graveyard shift as a security guard. During the daytime, he roasted sausages on a portable stove mounted on his tricycle for sale.
Between his two jobs as security guard and street vendor, he did not have much sleep while earning a pittance. Much of what he earned went to his parents to help repay debts the family had incurred from his 53-year-old mother's medical bill for heart problems.
Cui would have remained one of China's countless struggling street vendors but for a startling, brutal end to his side income. One hot afternoon in August 2006, he jumped on a Beijing cheng guan, or urban management officer, Mr Li Zhiqiang, stabbing him in the neck with a knife. Mr Li and several other colleagues were about to seize the tricycle-cum-mobile stall from Cui for not having a street vendor licence.
The case shocked the nation. Mr Li, 36, was the first urban management law enforcer to be killed in the line of duty in the force's eight-year history. He was posthumously declared a "revolutionary martyr".
A Beijing court convicted Cui, 23, of premeditated murder in April 2007 and sentenced him to death. The execution was suspended for two years because he had shown remorse. There had also been an outpouring of sympathy for Cui because of his family circumstances. Cui had bought the three-wheeler just days earlier with borrowed money and had knelt and begged the enforcement officers to show leniency.
A DAILY URBAN PROBLEM
Cui's killing of a cheng guan may have made headlines for its tragic outcomes, but heated arguments between hawkers and urban enforcement officers are common across China, with an unknown number of cases turning ugly. In Beijing alone, urban management officers slapped fines ranging from 500 yuan (S$99) to 5,000 yuan on about 183,000 roadside stall operators last year – an average of 501 a day.
So it was not surprising that Premier Li Keqiang's proposal in late May to resurrect what has been dubbed the "street vendor economy" ran into resistance in the capital city, leading to all sorts of political speculation about power struggles at the top.
"Street vendor economy is not suitable for Beijing," the official Beijing Daily said in an editorial days after Mr Li floated the idea as a possible way to ease an economic crisis made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. He saw it as a positive way of helping some of the millions of jobless people make a living.
But the Beijing Daily saw it differently and warned of the "unhygienic and uncivilised" consequences of allowing people to ply their trade informally and unchecked in the capital.
"Dirty streets and sidewalks, fake and shoddy goods, noise pollution, street vendors all over the place, blocking traffic... If (they) make a comeback, previous governance results would be in vain and it would not be conducive to establishing a good image of the capital and the country and to promoting high quality economic development," it said.
The editorial was nuanced and did not mention the Premier by name, tiptoeing around the politically sensitive issue. But some foreign political pundits and Beijing-based diplomats interpreted the municipal government's questioning of Mr Li's brainchild as a proxy power play between the Premier and President Xi Jinping.
They argued that it was inconceivable for the risk-averse and politically correct newspaper – the "throat and tongue" or mouthpiece of the Beijing municipal government – to challenge Premier Li without the blessings of the capital's Communist Party secretary Cai Qi, a protege of President Xi who outranks the city's mayor.
The Premier is China's second most powerful man, ranking behind President Xi in the party's powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.
Mr Cai sits on the party's wider 25-member Politburo, which is ranked one notch below the Standing Committee.
It is extremely rare for a Politburo member to publicly challenge a Standing Committee member.
PROXY POWER STRUGGLE?
So is there shadow boxing going on? Party insiders do not think so.
"It's not a political (power) struggle. Li Keqiang was not trying to grab power. He is politically astute and will not get into a political struggle he cannot win," a source with ties to the Chinese leadership told The Straits Times, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Premier Li could not have talked about street vendor economy without the approval of the top party leadership, the source said. "But it is not yet government policy. Most local governments dare not disagree with nascent policies unsuitable for them, but they have the right to speak up."
Until the Cabinet issues an edict, after hearing the views of experts and other sources of feedback, the street vendor economy remains a trial balloon, the full adoption of which by local governments is uncertain.
"It's merely a difference of opinion. It's not a 'you die, I live' political struggle," said Mr Kou Chien-wen, a veteran China watcher at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, of the disagreement between the Premier and the Beijing press.
During his annual news conference, Mr Li also championed the have-nots of society, raising eyebrows when he said about 600 million people make less than 1,000 yuan a month.
Some foreign political analysts and diplomats saw Mr Li's revelation of the extent of the problem as a swipe against President Xi's vow to eradicate rural poverty by the end of the year. The pandemic has made buoying China's economy more difficult, and Mr Li's message, they say, was that China should be less ambitious about achieving its aim to build a "moderately prosperous society" ahead of the party celebrating its centennial in 2021.
But Mr Kou believes this speculation about Mr Li's motives ignores the power equation. Since assuming the top job in the party and military in 2017, President Xi has amassed more titles than any of his predecessors, making him the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
"Those disgruntled will not be able to gang up (against Mr Xi). It's extremely difficult to pull Xi down," he said.
NOT A CURE-ALL
So why then is Mr Li raising publicly the novel idea of relying on hawkers to prop up the economy?
For him, economic recovery and job creation in the wake of the pandemic are his top priorities.
Official figures put unemployment at 5.9 per cent in March, but a domestic stock brokerage estimated China's real unemployment rate at an alarming 20 per cent, or 70 million jobless, after more than 460,000 enterprises went belly up. China's jobless migraine could last for years.
Given the dire situation, Mr Li was simply offering a different means by which local governments could help the unemployed, by allowing them to operate stalls without facing the full brunt of official rules and regulations.
"When speaking of street-stall economy, what the Chinese central government is truly referring to is to provide local governments with an option rather than to demand a one-size-fits-all solution," Mr Chan Kung, chief researcher of Anbound think-tank, and associate research fellow Yu (Tony) Pan, wrote in The Diplomat.
Street vendors may not be a cure-all, but easing curbs on roadside stalls, morning markets and the like could create 50 million jobs, Professor Zhou Tianyong, director of the China Strategy and Policy Research Centre at Dongbei (Northeast) University of Finance and Economics, told news portal Sina.com.
Given the sudden shock of the pandemic and the gravity of the economic problems, the street vendor solution looks more like a Band-Aid rather than a long-term solution, helping to stanch the immediate bleeding by helping reduce joblessness and encouraging consumption.
For now, the level of support for Mr Li's idea is mixed.
Beijing, China's financial capital Shanghai and tech capital Shenzhen are against it. The Communist Party's Publicity Ministry has also weighed in, with state television pouring cold water on the project.
But others are more welcoming. More than 20 second-tier cities nationwide, including Wuhan, provincial capital of Hubei in central China and the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, have happily embraced the street vendor economy. Internet giants Alibaba and JD.com have lent their support by offering easy payment schemes to eligible street vendors.
Shenzhen Special Zone Daily, a newspaper supervised by the city's propaganda department, suggested in a commentary last month that perhaps different cities should be left to adopt different policies.
Regulating Beijing's thousands of roadside stalls and countless millions more across the country is no easy task. Without stiff enforcement, the revolting practice of using gutter oil or recycled cooking oil by some street vendors and small restaurants would make a dangerous comeback.
Urban management law enforcers are arguably among the most hated lot of civil servants in China, and not just for catching errant street vendors. The officers are also tasked with curbing air and noise pollution at construction sites and overseeing a city's sanitation and general environment.
While they do not have the power of the police force, they have been accused of beating up people and other abuses of power. For all that, Mr Cai and his colleagues have transformed Beijing from a once polluted, congested and chaotic city into a much more liveable green and cosmopolitan metropolis.
Allowing more hawkers back on the streets may be a necessary move at this juncture, but it should not be a long-term solution and needs to be balanced with the need to maintain public health and safety.
The risk is that once the contagion is contained and the economy has recovered, it would be difficult to convince hawkers to quit. Deregulating is easier than regulating, and there is a saying in Chinese for this: "Easy to invite gods, (but) difficult to send gods away."