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Struggles with Changing Politics: Street Vendor Livelihoods in Contemporary China

Anthropological Considerations of Production, Exchange, Vending and Tourism

ISBN: 978-1-78743-195-9, eISBN: 978-1-78743-194-2

Publication date: 10 August 2017



Today’s China has striven to exclude street vendors through political campaigns such as “National Sanitary City” and “National Civilized City.” Such campaigns pursue modernity and beautiful urban spaces by deeming street vendors to be disorderly, unsanitary, and obsolete. Taking a single Chinese city as a case study, this research analyzes why and how local bureaucratic apparatuses apply rapidly-changing and ambiguous political treatment to street vendors. This research also examines street vendors’ struggles and coping strategies with these ever-changing politics.


The data for this study were obtained during a total of ten months of fieldwork, beginning in 2013 and ending in 2016. In-depth interviews were conducted with fifty-one street vendors and six government officials; additionally, the researcher consulted newspaper reports, archives, and relevant official publications.


First, regarding the governance of street vendors, the local administration has shifted their stance between two distinct patterns – suppression and tolerance – depending on the timing of certain political campaigns. Second, the corruption and laziness of government officials has provided niches for the revival of street vending after campaigns are over, though with limitations. Third, street vendors in China tend to be passive recipients of government suppression, unable to forge effective resistance because of a lack of strong leadership and general organization.


This research will add to the general understanding of the government-vendor relationship by revealing the complexity, uncertainty, and flexibility inherent in interactions between these two groups.




The fieldwork was funded by the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University and the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research. I sincerely thank the two institutions for their generous support. I am deeply indebted to Jingjing Xie of Sanya University, who worked as my research assistant in 2014 and helped me to conduct interviews. I would also like to express my profound gratitude to Dr. Norbert Dannhaeuser and Dr. Cynthia Werner for their valuable comments on earlier drafts. Some of the findings were presented at the 2015 annual conference of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C. and the Thirteenth Graduate Seminar on China held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2017. Many thanks to the audience members and colleagues who offered me useful suggestions after these presentations.


Zhong, S. and Di, H. (2017), "Struggles with Changing Politics: Street Vendor Livelihoods in Contemporary China", Anthropological Considerations of Production, Exchange, Vending and Tourism (Research in Economic Anthropology, Vol. 37), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 179-204.



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