Beyond Unemployment: Informal Employment and Heterogeneous Motivations for Participating in Street Vending in Present-day China

Blog by Gengzhi Huang, Hong-ou Zhang, Desheng Xue

20 Sep 2017, 4:41 p.m.
Gengzhi Huang, Hong-ou Zhang, Desheng Xue



Street vending has become a remarkable part of the informal economies of contemporary cities in the Global South. Our interest in people’s participation in street vending in China initially arose from a policy puzzle in the biggest city of Southern China, Guangzhou (Figure 1). That is, why street vendors have repeatedly emerged and persisted in harshly exclusionary policy environments. A general explanation comes to be the scarcity of modern-sector jobs in the context of underdevelopment, suggesting that street vendors persist because people find no jobs and take street vending as the last resort to survive. In current China, however, paralleling with the problem of unemployment is the phenomenon of a surplus of waged jobs in its developed eastern regions, where street vendors particularly prevail. This contradiction prompted us to suggest that the motivations of street vending in present-day China are complicated and driven by multiple factors beyond unemployment.  


Street vendors in the square of Guangzhou Railway Station

Figure 1 Street vendors in the square of Guangzhou Railway Station. Source: taken by the first author in 2012


To unravel this multiplicity, we differentiated the motivations of various segments of street vendors in Guangzhou. Our findings show that various types of labourers, including wage workers, farmers, the unemployed and small businessmen, participate in street vending with diverse motivations, but in a common attempt to improve their livelihoods. These motivations are driven by diverse socio-economic forces in the context of transformation in post-reform China, including unemployment, the low quality of waged jobs, rural poverty, the difficulties of maintaining a formal business, and the poor remuneration of jobs in cities.


In addition to push factors, labourers are also pulled by the autonomy/flexibility of street vending, which enables them some control over their lives while earning a living. This autonomy is particularly important for female migrant workers. Many of them gave up waged jobs after marriage, and took to street vending to balance work and their familial responsibilities, such as cooking, housecleaning and childcare. On Guangzhou’s sidewalks, it is common to see a mother carrying her baby on her back while managing trading activities (Figure 2).


Female vendor making pancakes

Figure 2 A female vendor making pancakes with a baby on her back on the sidewalk in the front of Pazhou Exhibition Centre in Guangzhou. Source: taken by the first author in 2012


Overall, people’s motivations for participating in street vending are heterogeneous and can be understood as being pushed by socio-economic forces imposed on them and pulled by the benefits they seek to gain from informal practices. This push-pull analytical approach we develop in the paper enables a critical evaluation of the validity of informality theories in explaining street vending. It is found that street vendors’ motivations in China are significantly, but not fully, explained by current theories on informality. This suggests that a nuanced approach that can capture the heterogeneity of the motivations of informal workers is needed to achieve an integrated understanding of causes of informal economies.


The failure of the exclusionary policy is understandable as the persistence of street vending in China is a result of structural forces in the transformation context. It is ill-advised as it does no more than deprive people of the opportunity to change their lives. Street vending should not be seen as a problem, but a potential part of the solution to the problems related to poverty, poor job quality and unemployment in China as well as other developing countries. We argue for an inclusionary policy for street vending and call for further exploration of it in future research on urban informality.


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