Urban Forum

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From Overt Opposition to Covert Cooperation: Governance of Street Food Vending in Nanjing, China

  • Ning DaiEmail author
  • Taiyang Zhong
  • Steffanie Scott


In the Global South, the informal food economy is both a source of income for disadvantaged urban groups and an accessible source of food for consumers. Yet, governance of this economy has commonly been restrictive among Southern countries including China. Consequently, in China there has been an antagonistic relationship between vendors and chengguan—China’s city management officers. This antagonism has been studied by scholars and reported by Chinese media. In response, several Chinese municipal governments, including Nanjing’s, reformed their regulations to formalize street food vending with a permit system. Despite this progress, the reforms are criticized as partial and dismissive of the needs of vendors. This article uses semistructured interviews with street food vendors to evaluate how the reforms affected vendor-chengguan relations and vendors’ livelihoods in Nanjing. In contrast to other studies in China, we identified a non-confrontational relationship between some groups of vendors and chengguan. Rather than overt opposition, this relationship is better understood as covert cooperation. Unpermitted practices of street food vending were tolerated by chengguan and the local government, despite restrictive top-down regulations. A few other existing case studies conceptualize the discrepancy between policy and its implementation as ambiguous governance. However, we argue that the term ambiguous governance does not fully capture the complex dynamics in the covert cooperation between vendors and officers in our study. One group of vendors we studied play multiple roles. They were not only petty traders, but also landless farmers who lost their farmland to urbanization. The agreement between these vendors, chengguan, and local government was reached outside the permit system, and was a means of compensating vendors for their lost land. Therefore, the governance mechanism is more accurately conceptualized as compensatory governance. To conclude, we call for further studies on the compensatory governance of street food vendors among Chinese cities, and advocate for community-based bottom-up initiatives to formalize this informal governance.


Funding Information

The research discussed in this paper was made possible by funding from the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Advanced Scholars program, International Development Research Centre, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geography and Environmental Management at University of WaterlooWaterlooCanada
  2. 2.Department of Geographic and Oceanographic Sciences at Nanjing UniversityNanjingChina

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