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.
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The first author conducted the field research under the supervision of the two other authors. To be concise, this paper uses “we” in reference to the role of researchers during fieldwork.
Wet markets are the traditional markets in China that trade fresh produce, meats, fish, spices, and other products. To make leafy vegetables appear fresh, vendors frequently sprayed water on them, wetting the floor. Therefore these markets were named wet markets.
Pseudonyms are used to identify all respondents to ensure their anonymity.
In China in the year of 2018, men retire at the age of 60, and women at 55.
Hukou is a binary household registration system in China. Chinese residents are either registered with rural hukou or urban hukou. Rural hukou holders do not have equivalent access as urban hukou holders do to public resources such as education, medical insurance, or low-income household subsidies, even if they live in cities.
Known in Chinese as Jiedaobanshichu, is the subdistrict administration in China. It is the lowest level of government in Chinese cities and is usually assigned to govern a set of urban neighborhoods.
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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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Dai, N., Zhong, T. & Scott, S. From Overt Opposition to Covert Cooperation: Governance of Street Food Vending in Nanjing, China. Urban Forum 30, 499–518 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12132-019-09367-3