What is China's Market Stall Economy?

Andrew Methvan
8 June 2020

I still get caught out by new words in Chinese.

The confusion usually comes either from something that's very old (like, 3,000-years-old old), or really new.

Panic sets in when someone says something like, 'During the ancient times in China....' (在中国古代的时候)…

Anything could happen following that - a poem, an ancient story, an obscure idiom.

But my latest slip up happened when I heard a new phrase being talked about by my Chinese colleagues in a video meeting earlier this week. The new word was: Market Stall Economy, 地摊经济 (Dìtān jīngjì).

I was transported back to when I first got to China...

A market stall, or a Dìtān, was one of the first words I learned in Chinese. Back then market stall vendors were everywhere - on main roads in cities, in parks, night markets, in villages and even in the middle of nowhere where buses and trucks stop to refuel.

In fact most of my Chinese words then, as well as my negotiation skills, were acquired at Dìtāns across the country.

A Dìtān is not to be confused with a carpet - 地毯 (dì tǎn).

A carpet is pronounced the in the same way but has a third, not first, tone in tan. It also has a different verb. A vendor sets or puts (摆 - bǎi) a stall, whereas a carpet layer would lay (铺 - pū) a carpet.

Avoiding that linguistic rug-pulling only opens up the novice learner to yet more confusion. Because pū can also mean shop (店铺 - Diànpù), store (商铺 - Shāngpù), or bed (床铺 - Chuángpù) - but it morphs into the fourth tone, not the first, just in case your were not already totally lost.

Back to my video meeting meeting earlier this week.... and from one confusing thought to another... I continued to pretend I knew what was going on. Blagging it is still by far the most effective way to learn Chinese in my opinion. I nodded knowingly on the video call and made a note of this new word to look it up afterwards.

Some quick Baidu-ing followed...

So it turns out that the 'market vendor economy' - or Dìtān jīngjì - could be the next big thing. Market vendors are helping to kickstart the Chinese economy. Having being phased out of the major cities in recent years, they are now being encouraged by policy makers and are having quite an impact.

On 15 March, Chengdu became the first city to allow 'civilised roadside operators' (文明占道经营) to put up their stalls in the city. Other cities have followed - Zhengzhou, Nanjing and Qingdao have encouraged market stall vendors to come back to previously deserted roadside spots.

By mid-May the market stall economy had generated over 100,000 jobs in these cities.

Premier Li Keqiang even got behind the idea this week when he visited market stall vendors in Yantai on Monday, saying:

“The street-stall and small-store economy is an important source of employment, it's the fireworks of the world of man — it’s part of China’s livelihood just as much as larger, high-end businesses” ( 摊经济、小店经济是就业岗位的重要来源,是人间的烟火,和高大上样,是中国的生机 。)

(I think fireworks (烟火 - Yānhuǒ) here is supposed to mean lifeblood, energy or spirit.)

So when the PM talks fireworks, big business also gets cracking.

China's online players have announced their own plans to support (and capitalise on) the market stall economy, launching various plans to help vendors take to the streets. Nolan Chen Yi of Linkedin China says that Alipay is to lend money to small retailers at zero interest rates, while WeChat, and Suning are all taking action:

  • WeChat Pay National Small Stall Fireworks Plan (全国小店烟火计划) - offering subsidies, guidance, and marketing support to SMEs,
  • JD Fire From the Stars Plan (星星之火”计划)
  • And Suning Night Shopping Partner Plan (“夜逛合伙人”计划)

So the humble market stall vendor has attracted the attention of big business, the Premier and it's now having a big impact on another market - China's stock market.

On Tuesday Wuling Automobile - a bit like the Robin Reliant of China's domestic auto scene - launched a new model of van that can be converted into a mobile business stall using "falcon-wing" doors at one push of a button.

Look at the wings on that!

It's promo video went viral and Wuling Hong Kong-listed shares have since doubled in value.

According to Caixin other 'market stall economy' stocks in kitchen equipment, dining equipment and small commodities have all enjoyed a bounce in their stock price this week.

So, my new word of the week, the 'market stall economy' (地摊经济), may end up being much more than a small addition to my vocab list, it could become one of the big new entrepreneurial ideas talked about in China this year - up there with the likes of shared economy (共享经济), live streaming e-commerce (电商直播) or influencer marketing (网红营销).

What do you think? Can China's market vendors turn a profit? Can they bring some much needed firepower to China's economic recovery?