Plight of Chinese hawkers highlights impact of downturn

August 1, 2013 7:45 am

Plight of Chinese hawkers highlights impact of downturn

By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing

Every year the scorching Chinese summer brings throngs of unlicensed vendors out on to the streets, hawking everything from pirated DVDs to watermelons. Given their lowly and illegal status they are often treated poorly by the authorities, but this year has been particularly bloody for this army of mobile shopkeepers. Two weeks ago, Deng Zhengjia, a 56-year-old watermelon vendor, was killed and his wife knocked unconscious after they were attacked by the local “chengguan” – an auxiliary police force tasked with keeping city streets clean and orderly. Since then there have been a dozen similar incidents reported across China in which “melon-peasants” (as they are referred to in Chinese), street hawkers, journalists and even police officers have been beaten up by locally-employed chengguan.Chengguan brutality is not new, but experts say rising unemployment, particularly in the low-end export-orientated manufacturing sector, is driving up the number of vendors and prompting many more confrontations on the streets.

“The economic downturn has caused an increase in the unemployed and low-income populations and they have to return to the labour market which inevitably increases the conflict between chengguan and street vendors,” says Qiu Jianxin, an expert on the chengguan at Nanjing Aeronautics and Astronautics University.

Official Chinese unemployment data are virtually meaningless as they do not count the country’s hundreds of millions of migrant workers. According to a government manufacturing sector survey published on Thursday, however, employment in the sector has contracted for 13 months. A separate survey published by HSBC showed that the number of workers in the manufacturing sector shrank in July at its fastest pace since March 2009, with expectations of further job cuts.

The government has said 7.25m jobs were created in the first half of the year. But another survey from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security found that the number of new urban jobs fell by 5.7 per cent in the second quarter from the same period a year earlier.

“The employment situation is weakening in China,” says Zhu Haibin, chief China economist for JPMorgan. “The service sector is creating some jobs to hold up the overall labour market conditions but low-skilled manufacturing employment is particularly weak.”

A researcher at a government think-tank, who asked for anonymity, estimated that in some export-orientated manufacturing zones in south China one-third of migrant workers were still employed in factories, another third had switched to employment in the services sector while the final third had returned home to the countryside.

This balancing effect means China has not yet seen widespread net lay-offs despite three years of steadily slowing growth – from almost 12 per cent expansion in early 2010 to 7.5 per cent growth in the second quarter this year.

The government paid off the family quickly to shut them up because they are very worried this incident could spark wider protest or some sort of popular movement

– Yang Jisheng, deputy editor at a reformist magazine

Without the pressure of massive unemployment the government has been unwilling to launch a major stimulus package to boost the economy as it did in late 2008 in the face of the global financial crisis. But the overall employment figures disguise the shifts that are occurring in the labour market and the potential dangers for China’s stability-obsessed government.

As news of Deng’s death in central China spread on social media, it caused outrage throughout the nation that was even expressed in official media outlets.

Local government officials in charge of the chengguan initially claimed he had “suddenly fallen to the ground and died”. But Beijing soon ordered the arrest of the officers involved and arranged for his family to receive a large payout.

“The government paid off the family quickly to shut them up because they are very worried this incident could spark wider protest or some sort of popular movement,” says Yang Jisheng, deputy editor at the reformist magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu.

Apart from there being fewer available jobs in the manufacturing sector there is also a mismatch between the jobs available and the skills and ambitions of those entering the workforce.

“There are studies that show a connection between unemployment and the number of street vendors in China,” says Ye Tan, a popular columnist who has written extensively about the chengguan. “But for many vendors the problem is not that they can’t find a job, but that they are unwilling to work long hours in high-risk manufacturing jobs.”

Because street vending is the main source of income for many of these migrants, the stakes are high when they are caught by chengguan, who regularly confiscate all of their wares and income. The chengguan often ask for protection money from vendors and regularly conduct street raids that can sometimes turn violent.

Just one day after Deng was killed, another melon vendor in northeast China was beaten up by chengguan in his city, in an incident that was captured on camera phones by witnesses. The footage was replayed by a regional state-controlled TV station whose journalists were themselves attacked by chengguan on camera when they went to the chengguan’s offices to check the facts of the case.

A week later, a police officer was reportedly beaten and had his pistol grabbed by a group of chengguan in western China after he was called to an incident in which the chengguan were attacking people.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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