Hong Kong’s war of attrition against street hawkers

I enjoyed Christopher DeWolf’s Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong, the latest installment I read in the Penguin Hong Kong series. It’s a nice piece of reportage that helps fill in the little-known (to me anyway) history of street life and informal urban structures in Hong Kong.

The book is particularly good at providing an alternative perspective on how Hong Kong’s government actually works. To anyone who has spent time in Hong Kong, the idea that it has the world’s freest economy (as the Heritage Foundation perennially tells us) is just patently, obviously untrue. But even so I was fairly shocked to discover that the government has for decades been actively trying to get rid of the small-scale retail entrepreneurs known as street hawkers:

For years, activity in the streets of Hong Kong was only loosely regulated, but by the 1970s, the government decided it was time to assert more control. The theory at the time was that, as cities transitioned from “third world” to “first world,” such informal uses of urban space would dwindle as the economy developed and people became wealthier. One day, the reasoning went, there would no longer be any need for hawkers, dai pai dong, squatter villages or anything of the sort.

In light of this argument, the Hong Kong government opted for a policy of elimination through attrition. Squatter villages were frozen in place, their residents prohibited from expanding their homes until they could be replaced with public housing estates. Street hawkers were licensed and regulated.  …

The catch was that, while hawkers were still allowed to ply their trade, their licenses were made exceptionally hard to transfer. Even today, when a licensed hawker dies, his or her license can only be transferred to a surviving spouse. The intent was to eventually eliminate all street hawker stalls, and this 1970s-era policy is now well on its way to achieving that goal. In 2015, there were just 6,133 licensed hawkers in Hong Kong; another 1,440 work illegally.

The biggest markets are thriving, including the always busy meat, seafood, fruit and vegetable stalls around Nelson Street and Canton Road, but many of the secondary markets are withering away – not for lack of business, but because the government is actively relocating stalls and buying back hawker licenses in order to clear the streets. Between 2013 and 2015, a total of 481 hawkers surrendered their licenses. …

It is hard not to notice that shrinking opportunities in this part of the economy have coincided, at least, with the general decline in entrepreneurship and social mobility:

The crackdown on informal life isn’t necessarily responsible for the persistent inequality and decline of social mobility in Hong Kong, but there’s a case to be made that it has exacerbated the situation by denying people access to affordable products and the ability to become entrepreneurs.

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