Media business

Newspapers make for an ugly city

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Blocking the sidewalk.

For the last seven years, commuters on their way to work in Guiyang have found it hard to buy a morning paper. As part of a campaign to clean up the city's roadways, the capital of Guizhou Province cleared its sidewalks in 2001 and has kept them free of vendors' stalls, including newsstands, ever since.

The decision was not without controversy: were the newsstands any worse than the roving newspaper sellers that sprang up in their place? The Beijing News examined the situation in a lengthy report on Saturday.

Pan Zhijian is the Guizhou provincial secretary of the Zhi Gong party. His retired father reads the newspaper every day. After the newsstands were torn down, his father has to go around to many different places to find a newspaper seller. "Sometimes we'll buy one for him after work, but it's really inconvenient," said Pan.

Roving vendors have moved in to become the leading force in the absence of formal newsstands. Liu Jing, who works in the provincial government, said, "It's a real problem when it rains, because we can't find anywhere to buy a newspaper."

In addition, the roving vendors mainly sell popular newspapers, but Liu Jing likes more specialized, in-depth magazines and weeklies, which are hard to find in many areas.

Guiyang started a project to "return the roads to the people" in 2001. Crowding in the the densely-populated downtown area made it hard to maneuver, so clearing the sidewalks was a way to ease pedestrian traffic problems:

"After the year 2000, you'd run across something practically every other step," said Yang Qihua, director of Guiyang's Postal Delivery Office. He recalled that the streets were home to newsstands, bus token changers, rest stations for sanitation workers, and cold-drink vending machines.

In 2001, to control street-side stalls and to eliminate obstacles to pedestrian traffic, Guiyang decided to eliminate of all the installations altogether, including forty-two postal newsstands, "returning the roads to the people."

"The Planning Bureau has always supported the construction of newsstands, but not on the sidewalks," Wei Dingmei, head engineer at the Guiyang Planning Bureau, said decidedly.

She said that in order to return the roads to the people, in addition to not authorizing newsstands built on the sidewalks, the Planning Bureau does not authorize newspaper boards, law propaganda boards or family planning propaganda boards either.

Yang Qihua said that the Post Office has continued to apply for newsstand licenses, submitting over 200 applications and reports to various government departments since 2001. But few newsstands were authorized. In 2004, during a national campaign conducted by the Publicity Department and the State Post Bureau to "bring local party newspapers into the marketplace," the municipal party considered setting up six trial newsstands; eventually three were built in heavily-trafficked sections of town.

Debate continued over the next few years; by the end of 2006, the city was leaning toward setting up newsstands in residential areas instead of on crowded thoroughfares. It established seven test sites, bringing the total number of newsstands in the city to 20, serving a population that was nearing 2 million. (Planning Bureau statistics show 77, but that takes into account any location that sells newspapers, whether it is a newsstand or a storefront.)

A proposal in mid-2006 suggested selling newspapers through existing businesses:

In July, 2007, the Planning Bureau issued the Distribution Plan for Newsstands in the Guiyang City Center: "Regarding newsstands operating on the street, we support moving as much business as possible into chain stores, convenience stores, restaurants, hotels, and supermarkets."

"That's easy to say," said Yang Qihua. Yang said that for a sales location on a major road in Guiyang that makes 15,000 yuan in monthly revenue, a marginal profit rate of 28% would leave 4,200 yuan. Taking out a minimum of 1,200 in salary for each of two workers, and water, electricity, sanitation, and other fees, there would be just 1,600 left.

According to a survey conducted by the Post Bureau, the monthly rent of a first-floor location in a building along a major road in Guiyang runs up to 500 yuan per square meter. A newsstand that occupies ten square meters would owe 5,000 yuan a month in rent.

That means that gross profits are not enough to cover rent. If a newsstand is set up off the main drag, then even though rent will be cheaper, sales will drop even as operating costs remain the same.

In addition, newsstands already licensed to operate in a few neighborhoods are not permitted to sell beverages or to run public telephones.

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An ad-hoc newsstand in Guiyang.

Situated in the mountains, Guiyang may be unable to satisfy the demands of its growing population by expanding outwards in the manner of other cities; in this respect, its desire to keep the downtown free from obstructions is understandable.

But commentators in the Chinese media took issue with the explanation given by the city's chengguan (urban administration) that the removal of streetside vendors was also intended to be part of city beautification.

At Rednet, Ma Erli lamented the inconveniences that chengguan impose on the public:

Our city is like an overnight millionaire who dresses in famous-brand clothing but lacks sophistication; his mobile phone is encrusted with diamonds, but you cannot find a pen anywhere on his person. The plight of the newsstands is like the millionaire's pen—it doesn't matter if it is there or not. Actually, Guiyang is not the only city where newsstands are in limbo; the phenomenon is repeated in many cities across the country. Before the road I live on was widened, it had a newsstand covering three square meters that had stood there for decades. When the road was widened, the sidewalk was widened too, and it was even greenified. But the newsstand was carried off by the chengguan. From then on I had to walk a long way to buy a newspaper.

There is no doubt that this is the the ultimate result of the chengguan's "great unification." They do not consider the history of newsstands or the makeup of the newspaper sales network, nor do they consider whether or not it is convenient for consumers to buy newspapers. Administrative accomplishment—"no vendors on the roadway"—is the ultimate goal of the chengguan.

And everything can be swept away like autumn leaves when this ultimate goal exists. However, urban management clashes with the consumption of culture; is it merely the residents' loss when such a large city cannot find room for a three-square-meter newsstand? A city that does not permit newsstands, a city that provides no facilities for culture is a city that is unbearably snobbish—a city that won't have much of a future.

Junjun, writing in the Qianjiang Evening News, accused the chengguan of taking the easy way out:

In typical urban administration thinking, there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the "will of the officials" and the "will of the people"; between the government's "face" and the people's "stomach."

Tearing down all newsstands on the sidewalk in order to "return the roads to the people" seems to be something of an overcorrection. What someone familiar with the urban management administration said seems more likely to be the true face of the situation: roadside vendors affect the beauty and fluidity of a city. If newsstands are authorized, then other vendors will flock back to the road as well, and they'll be difficult to eradicate.

Evidently, eliminating newsstands is not purely for the righteous cause of "returning the roads to the people"; the "fear" that practically all urban administrators share is exposed: a "fear" that roadside vendors will affect the "face" of the city; a "fear" that too many roadside vendors will increase the difficulty of managing them. To reduce management "headaches," why not simply get rid of them all at one stroke?

There's no question that sweeping away all stalls, including newsstands, can make a city look particularly bright and orderly, and it also lets the city administrators relax. But "small vendors and small businessmen are treasures, too," as the slogan of the Urumqi chengguan once went: in today's tight job market, these stalls are related to the "rice-bowls" and "stomachs" of a fairly large, vulnerable population. The elimination of those stalls hides other problems with the people's livelihood. When the administrators tear down in the name of "the people's convenience," they cannot escape "inconveniencing the people"; tearing down the newsstands "stops up" one of the channels through which the city's residents satisfy their cultural demands.

A city cannot be free of order, but neither can it have nothing but lifeless order. The best standard for testing the measures implemented by the city administrators ought to be the will of the people.

And a letter to the Beijing Youth Daily suggested that the Guiyang city officials were starting off from mistaken assumptions: highly-developed, beautiful cities like Shenzhen and Beijing are covered with newsstands, but no one complains that they are detrimental to the image of those cities.

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