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Vendors and Chengguan: A Lasting Battle under the Streetlight

Peking University, Apr. 9, 2015: Even in the chilling winter, the street outside the Southwest Gate (also called Minor West Gate) after nightfall is still bustling. A man in down jacket and cotton-padded cap is pacing up and down in front of a nearby restaurant. After confirming that there is no sign of Chengguan, the urban management officers, he, the owner of the “Liangzi Barbecue” stall, starts his business under the streetlight.

The Night Stand near Southwest Gate

Street vendors and Chengguan: “we are Tom and Jerry”
Under the homemade light, Sun Jie, who sells fried rice noodles, is busy in cooking. Tonight, Sun is lucky to have sold eight packs of midnight snacks in less than half an hour. “I come here for rice noodles every day, and I can even pay the next day for tonight’s snack,” says a nearby staff who just returns to his work with four packs of fried rice noodles.

Not having finished cooking, Sun notices that another vendor owner Ye Song is suddenly packing his stall and moving westward. Sun looks out alertly into the street, and turns off the light over the pot immediately. Receiving the cue from Sun, the boy waiting for the fried rice noodles walks a few steps forward, pretending to be crossing the road. Sun keeps cooking while staring cautiously into the north-south street, where a police car slowly passes after a short while. It is only after the police car drives away that Sun reopens the light, Ye comes back, and the boy turns back to the stall for his snacks. “Now I am just like a frightened bird, due to the Chengguan’s severe inspection a while ago ,” Sun says to the customers, with a helpless smile.

The BBQ Stall

A staff who works nearby tells us that the latest inspection happened before the Spring Festival. At about ten at night, a van with the words “Chengguan” on it stopped in front of the Southwest Gate, several law enforcement officials sitting inside waiting for the appearance of the vendors. However, those clever vendors did not start their business because their “sentry” had discovered the Chengguan’s van. “The relations between Chengguan and the stall owners is like cat and mouse ,” the staff says.

Nevertheless, not every time the vendors succeed in escaping the inspection. The owner of “Liangzi Barbebue” says that she got caught last year. She tells us that the law enforcement officials approached the stalls quietly, without drawing the attention of the vendors who were busy with their business. In the end, Chengguan detained all the stalls in the name of “illegal roadside stall business”.

Urban management inspectors: “rampant illegal vendors”
Haidian district has worked on creating the national civilized district since June, 2012. Following the policy, the Urban Management Bureau starts the work of ridding the roadside stalls around the Southwest Gate, because of the air pollution produced by the outdoor cooking, and the potential risks of food insecurity.

One inspector responsible for this area tells us that, according to the survey carried out by the Food and Drug Administration and the Urban Management Bureau, the vendors actually sell a large amount of expired food. "What’s worse, they use their crowded rooms for both producing food and rest at the same time, which is very unhygienic.”

By illegally occupying the road and doing unlicensed business, the vendors also violate the legal interests of surrounding business. It is unfair that the unlicensed vendors who pay no rents grasp benefits by occupying good sections. “They are challenging the law by occupying the road built with the taxpayers’ money for private interest,” the inspector says.

However, Chengguan’s law enforcement is not smooth. The vendors have their own “sentry” inform them to retreat once catching sight of Chengguan. In order to guarantee the security of the students, inspectors will choose not chase the escaping vendors.

Even stronger resistance against Chengguan’s work comes from the public opinion. “The public opinion is against us now, ” the inspector says, “more than 90% of the students are sympathetic with the vendors and plead for them. Some even would not leave, and continue to eat at the stall and impede the law enforcement. ”

As for the procedure of law enforcement, according to the inspector, the vendors will be questioned and fined, and their tools will be seized temporarily. The vendors can “redeem” their confiscated tools shortly after paying the “ransom”. But the inspector says it is not the truth, “Fine and payment are separated now. Only when we receive the payment note of the bank will we return their tools.”

Sometimes, confiscation seems to be less effective. Due to the expensive fine, the vendors would rather buy new tools which is much cheaper than take back the suspended ones.

Busy with Cooking

The fate of roadside stalls: to be or not to be?
The stalls around the Southwest Gate are ideal choice for those who stay up late studying and who are hungry at night, especially given the situation that the canteens and food stands inside the campus are closed after midnight. Many students support the business of those stalls, and hope that the vendors can be provided with exclusive stand places.

On one hand, most vendors do business around the Southwest Gate to make a living. In 2010, Ye Song and his wife, whose business of selling porridge on their rented booth in Xiyuan market (a market near PKU campus) was poor, came to the Southwest Gate following their neighbor’s advice, hoping that they could make more money. They never think of returning to their hometown where the average annual income per person is only about 2700 yuan. “We don’t want to go back because we are unable to earn much money by farming in our hometown, and now all our families are in Beijing. ”

Like Ye Song, there are many other vendors who have to make a living in this way. For them, their stalls are the main source of income for the whole family.

For Chengguan, on the other hand, banning the roadside stalls is their duty. Although the inspector knows that some vendors are badly off, he insists that they should not break the laws and impair others’ interests. As for the complaint that the vendors cannot apply for a business license without a fixed store, he thinks that even if they could have one, they would rather choose to do illegal business. “The cost of breaking the law is so low that according to the vendor, they wouldn’t mind being fined when they sometimes could make a thousand a night. It is much more costly to rent a store in such a prime location.”

Now under the pressure of the inspection, some barbecue stand owners have left the Southwest Gate business circle. Yet Ye Song and Sun decide to stay. 

At 3 a.m., having served the last customer, Sun packs remaining food and the homemade lamp into the cart. He takes out the gloves, warms his hands over the oven, and puts on the gloves, then slowly, he rides away in the dim streetlight.


Written by: Zhang Xinyu
Edited by: Xiao Chunliang
Photos & Source: PKU Youth