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Eating bitterness and eating well: the role of street markets in communities in Beijing Lary, Tatiana


Street markets are one of the most visible signs of China's economic reform. Although there had been a long tradition of street vending, such private sector activity was virtually eliminated nationwide in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It was only with the reform policy of 1978 that vending began to reappear. By the mid-1990's, street markets had become the main source of vegetables and many other goods for urban residents. This qualitative study addresses the role of markets in communities in Beijing. Methods of investigation included a literature review, mapping, participant observation, and interviews of residents, vendors and government officials. Markets provide employment, a cheap source of goods and a vibrant street life, but also bring problems of noise, waste, and traffic congestion. Problems vary according to the location of the markets. Vending is more strictly controlled in the inner city where streets are narrow and greater supervision is in place. There is more space in the outer city, where there are both more legal markets and more illegal vendors. Residents are dependent on markets for most foods, but are adversely affected by the negative aspects of markets. Results of the study indicate that many Beijing markets are poorly managed, in part because of the conflict of interest between different levels of government. Higher levels of government see markets as a backwards and disorderly phenomenon, and try to impose order by limiting the number of legal markets and vendors. Lower levels of government want to increase the number of vendors, and thus the revenue from management fees. In 1996, the Beijing government adopted a market clearance policy to reduce the total number of markets, and move street markets indoors. This policy seems unrealistic; it underestimates both the demand for street markets and the difficulty and cost of finding land for indoor markets. Recommendations stemming from the study focus on improving the current situation of street markets by applying more rigorous and consistent management, not by closing markets down. Street markets have brought many benefits to Beijing residents; with better management the adverse effects of markets can be minimized.

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