GUO LIN IS one of those small entrepreneurs who took the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's advice and crossed the river - only he claims to have been bruised by the stones he was told to feel underfoot. The stallholder at Beijing's famed, and now threatened, Silk Market says he and his colleagues made big personal investments in their new businesses. 'We risked all our money on our stalls,' Guo says. 'We went all over the country to get the most up-to-date products, we paid the increasing administration fees and we bore the burden of being individual traders.' Although he admits there are some irregularities at the market (better known to locals as Xiushui market), Guo says it comes down to a question of attitude. 'How the government tackles the problem reflects its attitude towards small businesspeople,' he says. 'But do the problems mean the government should throw the baby out with the bathwater or try to resolve the issues proactively?' The government says the famous tourist attraction, known for its cheap counterfeits of brand-name goods, should be demolished because of the risk of fire, and relocated indoors. But others say the push has more to do with the nature of the goods - hardly the image Beijing wants to promote as the city becomes a focus of the world in the lead-up to 2008. The authorities have never claimed publicly that the move has anything to do with intellectual property considerations - although the US embassy's economic officer Robert Wang recently sent a letter to leaders of the Chaoyang district, where the market is located, saying it openly contradicts the Chinese government's commitment to tackling rampant counterfeiting. City officials admit the market doesn't have the modern look that an Olympic organising city should strive for. Guo says shop owners have several times offered to upgrade the market using their own money, but have had no response from the authorities. A proposal last month by officials from four departments in the Beijing municipality to demolish the market has ignited a debate about its future, and the wider question of preservation of open-air markets in the capital. Despite its popularity, the Silk Market may not be able to circumvent the fate befalling other open-air bazaars that have vanished from the city over the past few years. Established in the early 1980s, the Silk Market was at first an illegal and somewhat chaotic cluster of local vendors. Business sprouted at a time when the country was emerging from 30 years of planned economy. Then, in 1984, the district governors jointly decided to legitimise the traders. Deng urged people to 'cross the river by feeling the stones underfoot' - meaning to use one's senses to initiate and explore the emerging market economy. In other words, to have a go. An official at the Beijing Private Small Business Association, who declined to be named, says the Silk Market is 'a symbol of individual private enterprise, and reflects the national boom in the private economy'. He says that, initially, traders and regulators of the market had no precedent. 'It was the Silk Market that taught people what a market economy meant,' he says. Two decades on, the market has expanded from the original 100-odd stalls to 418. The taxes paid by the traders now amount to about 11 million yuan a year. But the market's name is, increasingly, a misnomer. The thousands of customers a day no longer walk through the market looking for silk. Fakes are easily the biggest drawcard. Despite its history and popularity, the fate of the Silk Market hangs in the balance. It looks poised to go the way of many open-air bazaars in China that have fallen victim to the bulldozer amid the economic boom they helped inspire. Shanghai's famous outdoor Xiangyang Market, for instance, which was built four years ago, is expected to be demolished next year after its five-year lease expires. Many of Beijing's open-air markets have had to upgrade or close, including the Sanlitun clothing market, the Sanlitun vehicle accessories market and the Yabaolu open wholesale market. When closing the Sanlitun clothing market in 2000, local officials said it was taking up space needed for civil infrastructure and transport, which was contrary to the goal of turning Beijing into a modern international metropolis, and not helpful to the Olympics bid. Other markets were ordered to close for the same reasons. Many of the Sanlitun and Yabaolu stall owners moved to other markets, including the new Yaxiu shopping mall. The Yaxiu vendors have mixed feelings about having had to move on. One Yaxiu trader, who gives only his family name, Jin, says that a company-managed mall is usually better run than an outdoor market, but that he sympathised with the Silk Market. 'The stall owners spent decades winning recognition,' he says. 'It would be a big pity if the market was pulled down.' Another stall owner who sells sportswear and gives his family name as Du, says it took him two years to start making a profit at the new indoor site. 'Relocating was a big blow for us,' he says. 'It took time to restore our customer base. It's a valuable thing to have a mature stable market.' Also lost as the markets move into modern premises are the unique characters and sales techniques. Chaoyang district Political Consultative member Gao Yang says the Silk Market has a distinctive character and that the open market form should be preserved. 'We already have many shopping malls, and the malls in other countries are much better than ours,' he says. 'We should develop our own character. 'It's difficult to generate a brand. The Silk Market has been developed into a well-recognised Chinese brand over nearly 20 years and this makes it different from other open markets. We can't afford to lose it.' Professor Niu Fengrui, director of the City Development and Environment Research Centre under the China Academy of Social Sciences, says that while people know in principle that development should accord with maintaining a city's character, the problem is how to apply the principle. 'To demolish a market means restructuring the present interests of all sides,' he says. 'The solution is to propose a number of choices for all parties and to discuss them. We then have to find a balance that is acceptable to the majority.' Not all the open markets that have been deemed not to be modern enough have been pulled down. Panjiayuan Secondhand Market is an outdoor bazaar built in 1995 that specialises in antiques, secondhand goods, paintings and calligraphic works and books. Since 2001, its organisers have erected shelters for stall owners and bigger outlets with traditional decoration for other vendors. This month, they also opened a two-floor mall inside the market to attract more vendors. 'We won't abolish the little stalls,' says market administrator Wu Shunlin. 'That's our character and the main component. Our aim is to be diverse and have a range of goods and customers.' The stall owners have accepted the changes, even though it means rents rose fourfold. 'The environment is better,' says one trader, whose family name is Chen. 'We can sell more items with a bigger space.' The Chaoyang district authorities have yet to make a final decision on the Silk Market's fate, but the Administration Approval Law that took effect last month will require them to at least be more transparent and take more note of what the public has to say.