Yiwu Market Shows Recovery

The scene at the famed trading town of Yiwu in eastern Zhejiang province, about 150 km (93 miles) from the nearest port at Ningbo, could hardly be described as frenetic. The hallways of its vast market called “International Trade City” are frequented by only a trickle of prospective buyers, and many of the sales staff look visibly bored.

But that is still an improvement from the near standstill reached a few months ago, many vendors here say, offering hope that the worst may be over for an export sector hit hard by the global slowdown.

“At the end of last year, I would sit here all day and not see a single customer walk past. All I would do was chat online,” said Wu Yaqin, who sells replica antique chests and cabinets wholesale from stall number 13,057 of the complex.

“Things have got better in the past two weeks. At least there are more people walking around and asking about prices,” she said, surrounded by hundreds of display models.

To be sure, Yiwu, with its focus on inexpensive everyday items, toys and decorations, represents only a slice of China’s exports, over half of which are now composed of higher value-added machinery, electronics and high-tech goods.

But the mostly cheap, labour-intensive goods that change hands here help provide employment for armies of migrant workers in factories scattered throughout the country, making it an important barometer of how China is handling the downturn.

What goes on here matters enough to policy makers in Beijing that the Commerce Ministry publishes an “Yiwu Index” tracking sales, prices and sentiment. That shows confidence among vendors plummeted in December but has inched up through March.

Any bottoming out of China’s exports, which fell 17.1 percent in March from a year earlier after a 25.7 percent drop in February, would bode well for the prospects of the world’s third-largest economy and other countries in the region that export raw materials and other inputs to it.

Longer Lines

Liu Ming is among those who see signs of a revival just in the past few weeks.

The salesman for Wenzhou Hualong Amusement Toys, which makes everything from playground equipment to rocking horses, pointed to the long line of trucks waiting to enter the local customs centre as a good sign that exports are reviving.

“At the peak in 2007, there were about 1,000 containers shipped out every day, and at the worst time the number fell to 100 or 200. Nowadays it’s around 300-400 a day.”

That sense was shared by Kathy Zhao, who sells decorative glass vases and plates made in northeast China.

“Business was very slow in the second half of last year, but in the last few weeks it’s returned to about the same level as a year ago,” Zhao said.

That would be in line with comments by Commerce Minister Chen Deming, who said in Washington on Monday that preliminary trade data for the first 20 days of April showed the rate of decline in the country’s exports had slowed.

Middle East Ties

Not that Yiwu has become a seller’s market.

Chan Mow Sway, managing director of Malaysian trading firm Leton Marketing, said this was the most buyer-friendly environment he had seen in the eight years he has been coming to Yiwu to buy plastic flowers, zippers and other consumer goods.

“I don’t even have to ask them, and the suppliers offer me a three to five percent discount straight away,” he said.

It is precisely such cost competitiveness, and a focus on selling not only to North America and Europe, that is helping many here weather the global slowdown, said Zhao Chunyong, sales manager for a shovel store that calls itself the “Shovel King”.

“There’s a bit of an impact, but we’re doing quite low-end products and our major clients are in central and eastern Europe and Africa, so it’s okay for us,” Zhao said.

Indeed, the constituency helping many shops get by is the thousands of traders from the Middle East and Africa who either live in Yiwu permanently or pass through on a regular basis.

Signs suggest the global slowdown may only increase those ties, as buyers look ever harder for the best deals they can get.

“I used to be able to go to Dubai to source things, but now with the economy not going so well, I have to come to China,” said Habte Behaye, a trader from Eritrea who ships building materials and consumer products to Africa and India.

Still, no one here is taking for granted that business will see a quick pick-up: the value of export deals clinched during the recently concluded first phase of the Canton Fair, the country’s top trade exhibition, fell 20.8 percent.

Wu, the fake antique dealer, said she just hoped she could keep paying the rent on her stall long enough to benefit from the rebound when it does take hold.

“I hope the financial crisis can pass quickly, otherwise I will feel I’m suffocating,” she said.


8, Aug. 2009

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