Every morning after one hour commute in Beijing, I come to Zhong Guancun, a place the Chinese call China’s Silicon Valley. Some Internet companies and countless computer products stores are located here. The streets in morning rush hour are packed with cars, buses and people going to work.
Along the sidewalk are breakfast vendors selling their homemade pancakes and soy milk to people like me who shares or rents an apartment and who is not married. This kind of convenience food really save us some precious sleeping time. Nobody knows if the food is clean or not; many of us here don’t have the luxury to eat McDonald‘s daily, which may be two times more expensive than the street food.
However, no matter how popular and clean the food is, the sellers are always being chased away by city management people, for whom the vendors are thorns in their sides. Whenever the food sellers spot vehicles of the uniformed, they would flee instantly and leave their customers behind. You may ask why they are so fearful of the people in uniform. It is because it is highly likely that these unlicensed vendors would be hit with a big fine, which may well mean their whole day’s work is wasted.
The scene of street vendors running for safety and being chased after reminds me of movies where thugs bully innocent people. But here in China, vendors and their “predators” are playing a real cat and mouse game. This scene is commonplace across the country and the sporadic clashes between ordinary citizens and city management people have become the root cause of many more problems in Chinese cities. Sometimes vendors or these enforcers are killed; even mass incidents occur due to misconducts of these government employees. So how can this socially-destabilizing issue be resolved?
I wonder what kind of breakfast these city code enforcers have every morning. I am certain not all of them are well off. Why can’t city governments issue licenses and designate some areas where vendors can sell their goods? Why can’t government employees soften the way they enforce city regulations? They are supposed to be servants of the people, not masters. The government can do inspections of street food and in the meantime, create a source of tax revenue. This can also legitimize vendors’ business activities and offer them a chance to make a living, helping solve unemployment problem.
What’s the makeup of those street vendors? They are among more than 240 million people migrating from China’s remote countryside, who have left their hometowns in hope that they will have a better life in the cities, to realize their Chinese dream, if there is one. This is an ongoing massive trend in China, which is endorsed by the government that’s striving to build an urbanized country. So why doesn’t the government come up with some solution for people like these breakfast sellers?
The vendors are citizens of this country; they are making contributions to cities in which they survive; they are not committing crimes; they are making a living by simply offering some food to people who need them. Why can’t they have a peaceful environment where they can do business and lead a peaceful but frugal life that they can actually enjoy? They are treated as second class citizens. They have no social security, no insurance; their kids can only go to poorly equipped shabby schools and are only likely to repeat the life they themselves have. This is a vicious cycle. The Chinese call today’s China “an era of competing dads”, meaning if you have a well-connected dad, you are in good shape, but if you don’t, you are done.
When ordinary people see the scene, what they can do is to offer sympathy to those powerless and sigh, because they themselves are also powerless. The only thing that differentiates them from those street vendors is they work in office buildings and have a white collar around their necks.