Coronavirus: China’s export showroom Yiwu grinds to a near halt as global pandemic restrictions bite



Daniel Ren | South China Morning Post

  • China’s famed Yiwu International Trade Market, a barometer for the health of the nation’s exports, has been hammered by the economic fallout from Covid-19
  • Export orders have dried up amid sweeping containment measures in the US and Europe and restrictions on foreigners entering China have shut out international buyers

The Yiwu International Trade Market has always been renowned as a window into the vitality of Chinese manufacturing, crammed with stalls showcasing everything from flashlights to machine parts. But today, as the coronavirus pandemic rips  through the global economy, it offers a strikingly different picture – the dismal effect Covid-19 is having on the nation’s exports.

The usually bustling wholesale market, home to some 70,000 vendors supplying 1,700 different types of manufactured goods, is a shadow of its former self. Only a handful of foreign buyers traipse through aisles of the sprawling 4-million-square-metre (43 million square feet) complex, while store owners – with no customers to tend to – sit hunched over their phones or talking in small groups.

“We try to convince ourselves that the deep slump will not last long,” said the owner of Wetell Razor, Tong Ciying, at her empty store. “We cannot let complacency creep in, although the coronavirus has sharply hampered exports of Chinese products.” 

Chinese exports plunged by 17.2 per cent in January and February combined compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the General Administration of Customs. The figure was a sharp drop from 7.9 per cent growth in December.

After riding out a supply shock that shut down most of its factories, China is now facing a second wave demand shock, as overseas export orders vanish amid sweeping containment measures to contain the outbreak around the globe.

Nowhere is that clearer to see than in Yiwu. The city of 1.2 million, which lies in the prosperous coastal province of Zhejiang, was catapulted into the international limelight as a showroom for Chinese manufacturing when the country joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

Before the pandemic, thousands of foreign buyers would flock to the mammoth trade market each day to source all manner of products before sending them home. But the outbreak, which has claimed the lives of more than 113,000 people and infected more than 1.9 million around the world, is proving a major test for the market and the health of the trade dependent city.

Imports and exports via Yiwu last year were valued at 296.7 billion yuan (US$42.2 billion) – nearly double the city’s economic output. Businesses, however, are facing a very different picture in 2020. Most traders at the market say they have lost at least half their business amid the pandemic, which was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last year.

“Yiwu is the barometer for China’s exports,” said Jiang Tianqing, the owner of Beauty Shine Industry, a manufacturer of hair brushes. “Just take a look at the situation in Yiwu and you will understand the extent of the virus’ effect on China’s trade with foreign countries.”

Jiang said his business was only just hanging on thanks to a handful of loyal customers placing orders via WeChat. “I assume it will be a drawn-out battle against the coronavirus,” he said. “We are aware of the fact that developed economies like the US and Europe have been severely affected.”

The Yiwu market reopened on February 18 after a one-month long hiatus following the Lunar New Year holiday and the government’s order to halt commercial activities to contain the spread of the outbreak.


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