By Lusha Zhang and Ryan Woo
BEIJING (Reuters) - Clad in black, Beijing's city inspectors descended on street vendors this week and ordered them to clear out, just days after the Chinese premier had sparked a rush to set up curbside stalls by praising them as a creator of jobs in the coronavirus-hit economy.
Wang Yihu, 50, a home decorator whose business has dried up after the COVID-19 pandemic, was in despair.
"The premier has already given us support. The power of the Beijing city government couldn't be stronger than the State Council right?" Wang said as he packed away tens of toy cars in anticipation of being chased away.
"The premier's words are always skewed by you local-level people," Wang said heatedly within earshot of some inspectors.
"We've lost our basic right to feed our families!"
Deemed by city officials as filthy and unsightly, street stalls made an unexpected comeback last week after Premier Li Keqiang said on a visit to Shandong province that roadside vendors provided vitality to China.
Days earlier, Li cited media reports about a certain city in western China that created 100,000 jobs overnight after setting up 36,000 street stalls. Up to 30 million people may lose their jobs this year due to the pandemic, some economists say.
But the State Council, or cabinet, has yet to announce any new policy in support of roadside vending.
Beijing Daily, a newspaper run by the city government, said over the weekend that letting the street market economy proliferate will harm the image of the Chinese capital.
The Beijing city government declined to make any additional comments.
"Premier Li's words in Shandong were more of an improvisation, not an official report," said Liu Shengjun, an independent commentator on the economy.
"What he didn't say but would naturally imply was that the street stall economy must be well regulated too".
The resistance towards street vendors widened on Monday as state television cautioned tier-one cities - traditionally Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen - against chasing short-term employment solutions.
Among them only Guangzhou has unveiled new policies promoting street vending.
Guangzhou on Friday specified 60 locations in the city where street stalls can be set up. It also imposed restrictions on merchandise type.
The street stall economy is more suitable in central and western cities, some state media said.
Preventing mass unemployment remains a top concern for the Chinese leadership, with President Xi Jinping pledging to turn China into a moderately prosperous society and eliminate abject poverty by the end of 2020.
Beijing street vendors told Reuters they were desperate to boost their incomes.
One was struggling with her rent and her son's mortgage, while a former jeweller with 100,000 yuan ($14,126) of unsold inventories at home was peddling 150-yuan Thai elephant brooches.
Yan Ying was selling black tea marketed by a company she was working for.
The 30-year-old has not received any wages since February, and if she fails to sell the tea, she will be fired.
"Even though the inspectors chased me away, I'll find other places," said Yan, who works part-time at Decathlon in the day.
"Reality is very cruel."
(Reporting by Lusha Zhang and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)