Striking a balance between liberty and regulation

Angela Chen
Shanghai authorities walk a tightrope in balancing public orderliness with the need to promote the livelihoods of stallholders and the shopping preferences of consumers. 
Angela Chen

With the pandemic under control, Shanghai has been proactive in creating stimulus aimed at lifting employment, spurring consumer spending and keeping small businesses afloat.

Recent initiatives included Quality Life Week, from May 30 to June 5, and the Shanghai Night Festival, from June 6 to 30. Featuring prominently in the latter were street stalls.

Street vendors in this city of over 24 million people were once a familiar sight. Making them more relevant today is part of the city’s answer to the mandate to improve livelihoods.

But they are also a test of the city’s managerial competence, as seen by the Pengpu Night Market, which was closed in 2013 following residents’ complains over traffic congestion, noise and garbage.

What adds to the city’s challenge is the ever-looming specter of the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak of the virus in a large Beijing wholesale market two weeks ago brought our full attention back to the importance of orderly management of markets.

The local urban management authority is well aware of the challenge.

“Relevant guidelines require local governments to plan night markets, weekend markets and special markets in view of local conditions, consumer spending demands and the need for flexible employment opportunities,” Xu Zhihu, director general of the Shanghai Urban Management and Law Enforcement Bureau, said in a recent speech.

To see how well the city has answered the need to promote livelihoods without compromising urban management standards, I conducted a weekend spot check at the popular Anyi Road Green Escape night fair in Jing’an District.

The stall-lined, Astroturf-covered pedestrian street has an hourly limit of 3,500 visitors. It is a pocket of open-air, eco-friendly chic, combining liberty and regulation with charming results.

Each stall, from pastel vehicles to rustic stands, is equipped with a transparent awning to fend off summer drizzle. At the back of each stall are bins for waste.

Shanghai’s stylish youth go there in droves to browse handmade jewelry costing 230 yuan (US$33) each or sample a lamb kebab for 30 yuan. The stalls offer an exciting array of food and other paraphernalia, including crackling rotisserie chicken, ornate palm-wood coasters and small Venus flytraps, just to name a few.

Chen Minghui, a middle-aged woman, said the goods are very fashionable and creative, appealing to lovers of beauty and refinement rather than to practical users.

Promotional reasons

Though the prices are often high, people don’t seem to care. They are just happy to be out and about after so long stuck at home. Thus, sales at the market keep rising and stallholders are able to make a living.

“We’re here for promotional reasons,” said a stallholder identifying herself only as Lana, who is marketing the British brand NovelTea. “Because most of our business is online, events like this help us to connect with our buyers face to face and understand their preferences.”

Naturally, such interactions are not without health concerns, and that’s where Shanghai’s skill in management comes into play. In return for the security needed to manage close contacts, weekend night markets in the city check body temperatures and health QR codes of visitors. Crowd sizes are limited and disinfecting is done regularly.

Each stall is also required to post necessary certifications on their walls, from the name of the company to food safety licenses.

More professional businesses like NovelTea pass these requirements easily, but it’s a bit harder for smaller, more personal ventures. In that group is Swing-Set Handicrafts, a WeChat-based business operated by a mother and daughter.

On the first weekend in June at the market, they made net profit of over 7,000 yuan selling colorful fabric purses, headbands, hats and innovative mask-holding pockets.

“What our government promotes, we’ll follow,” said the mother. “We are confident of that support.”

To help more grassroots ventures like Swing-Set Handicrafts, which depend on the night-market economy, the city needs to continue to strike a balance between exemplary orderliness and a more inclusive night market ethos.

The lower the threshold for market participation, the more chance small entrepreneurs have to make a living.

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