Migrant street vendors in urban China and the social production of public space

Flock, R., & Breitung, W.

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Flock, R., & Breitung, W. (2016). Migrant street vendors in urban China and the social production of public space. Population, Space and Place, 22(2), 158–169.

Guangzhou , migrants , public order , public space , street vendors , Urban China

This article focuses on the dynamics between migrant street vendors and public security forces and the complex social production of urban public space in Guangzhou. As an answer to daily contestation of public order, security agencies reluctantly open flexible windows of business opportunities to hawkers. Zones and periods of control, ‘soft’ approaches, and categories of ethnic belonging influence everyday governance and accessibility of public space. This results in a transient public space, fluid and continuously changing, which offers a new perspective on openness and functioning of public space in urban China.

Main finding
Street vending contributes to Guangzhou’s economy by meeting demands unmet by formal institutions and providing viable income to vendors, thus attracting new migrants. The city maintains order in specific public spaces by curtailing street peddling through ‘soft’ approaches in conjunction with the citywide ban of the practice. The Chengguan patrols informally tolerate street vending at certain times and in certain spaces while establishing elsewhere zones of heightened control. Ethnic minority vendors are more tolerated due to the tense relationship between the government and national minorities, leading to an overrepresentation of minorities among peddlers. Street vendors cope with this policing by strategically mobilizing their stalls according to patrols’ locations and working hours or through violent acts of resistance against Chengguan. Public space is socially produced by the vendor’s contesting of government officials’ top-down production of space. Migrant vendors contribute to local spaces by exposing others to their culture through goods, services, and behavior. Public spaces become dynamic due to the vendors’ mobility and the flexible enforcement of control over street peddling by local authorities.

Description of method used in the article
Participant and non-participant observation and eighteen semi-structured interviews were conducted in Guangzhou, China in May, August, and September 2012. Data were collected at two popular shopping streets (Beijing Street and Shangxia Jiu Street), the square of the city's main train station, and various metro stations, bar streets, and temple squares in multiple districts. These areas attract visitors, street vendors, and are focused on by the public security system. Researchers conducted interviews in the field with street vendors and security personnel. Additionally, official reports, regulations and announcements, newspaper articles, and yearbook data were analyzed.

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