‘Yiwu index’ points to bleak Xmas, dark hours in West

By GT staff reporters Source: Global Times Published: 2020/12/22 22:43:39

Local manufacturers shift to Chinese-style holiday products

Buyers pick Christmas items at a stall in Yiwu International Trade City shopping mall in East China's Zhejiang Province on Friday. Overseas orders for vendors in Yiwu declined sharply. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Almost a year ago when COVID-19 cases emerged in Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province, Western media were fixated on criticizing and slandering China's unprecedented response to the epidemic, as one of the most important holiday season in the country - the Chinese New Year - was disrupted. Some even linked the epidemic to China's political system and culture, sparking at times a racist attitude toward not just Chinese but Asian people. 

One year later, much of the Western world could have a rather "dark" Christmas season, as orders for everything from Christmas trees to LED decorating lights for vendors in Yiwu, East China's Zhejiang Province dropped sharply due to the raging pandemic and severe economic crisis. Some have even shifted their manufacturing line to provide Chinese-style holiday goods, as many in the country are preparing to reunite with their families to make up for lost holidays in 2020. 

The sharp decline in Christmas orders for vendors in Yiwu - the small commodities capital of the world - which is said to manufacture over 80 percent of the world's Christmas products, offered a further clue into the social and economic crises faced by Europe and the US, while China has returned to normalcy, analysts noted, adding that the holidays will be a major test of whether the West could rein in the virus and reach an inflection point like China did.

Sliding orders 

Christmas is celebrated in many Western countries, but vendors at the Yiwu International Trade City already have a better idea of how less festive the holiday season would be this year, as orders for Christmas goods dropped sharply.

Last year, the wholesale market of small commodities was crowded with foreign businessmen from all over the world eager to bargain for a deal with local vendors, in sharp contrast to the cold and desolate Christmas stalls this year. 

During the three hours when the Global Times reporters visited in early December, the Yiwu International Trade City, the city's symbolic center for small commodities, only a handful of visitors passed by the Christmas stalls. Few people, except the vendors, were still conscientiously sitting behind the booths with all kinds of Christmas items on display. 

After more than half a year of the global pandemic that has gone out of control in the US and part of Europe where Christmas is the most important holiday of the year, the vendors in the mall were used to the desolate scene and do not expect miracles at their booths for this year's Christmas.

"Because of concerns about the COVID-19 travel restrictions, Christmas orders have declined a lot this year," a vendor surnamed Huo, who has been exporting Christmas products for over a decade, told the Global Times, adding that export orders have dropped by at least 50 percent compared to last year, and there are very few foreign customers. 

Among the 500 or so vendors of Christmas products in Yiwu, total export orders have dropped by 30 percent this year, according to Cai Qinliang, secretary-general of the Industry Association of Christmas Supplies in Yiwu. 

"Foreign dealers dare not take the goods, because they fear stores are not allowed to open and they face the risk of not being able to sell the products," Cai told the Global Times on Tuesday, adding that some vendors have shifted their focus to selling holiday goods in the domestic market.

Almost in line with varying degrees of severity of the epidemic in different parts of the world, Huo said, the largest decline in orders this year is in Europe and the US, while orders from Asian countries are relatively stable. 

Despite the chilly winter, local vendors were not particularly anxious to promote their products but learned to adapt to the change. Some of them told the Global Times that they had no time to have lunch in ordinary days, but now they even have time for a nap. 

Anticipating that the demand in the terminal market will decline, many of them have already reduced their orders ahead of time in a bid to cut further losses.

With the robust small commodities exports sector, Yiwu has become a closely watched barometer of social and economic situations in Europe and the US, with some even using the so-called Yiwu index to predict election results in the US based on the purchase of campaign goods, as well as social unrest in France based on the purchase of yellow vests. 

"The rare decline in China's Christmas exports also reflects the reality of out-of-control epidemic prevention and control in Europe and the US," Bai Ming, deputy director of the Ministry of Commerce's International Market Research Institute, told the Global Times, noting that the pandemic has caused many in Europe and the US their jobs and, in turn, their purchasing power and mood. "This year, Europe and the US will have one of their worst Christmas in years."

Dark hours

The epidemic continues to worsen in Europe and the US, with some European countries seeing fresh waves of COVID-19 cases, while the US had not been able to contain the virus in the country. 

The Christmas holiday season could add new challenges to efforts to rein in the deadly virus, as many are expected to travel during the holidays. Fearing the risks, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reversed a planned relaxation of epidemic control rules during the holidays, as cases are rising again across the country. In the US, top disease expert Anthony Fauci warned of "greater challenges" during the Christmas than in Thanksgiving. In Australia, experts warned of "super-spreading events" during Christmas. 

With mounting risks and a failure to come up with a unified approach to beat the virus, "the entire Western society could enter dark hours during Christmas," Liang Manchun, an associate research fellow at the Institute for Public Safety Research of Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Liang said that Christmas will be a "major test" for the West's ability to fight the epidemic and governance. "If it cannot withstand the test, it could become a fuse for another wave of outbreaks… If it can withstand the test, it could have the opportunity to reach an inflection point like China," he said.

Many countries have taken preventive measures, and if these measures and government regulations can be followed, this Christmas could be like the Chinese New Year holidays early this year when China took strict measures to stop the spread of the virus through mass gatherings, and reach a turning point in the fight against the pandemic, Liang said. However, whether that works for Europe and the US remains to be seen, as there will be a two-to-three week period, he added.

But even if Europe and the US were able to prevent the widespread outbreaks of the COVID-19 during Christmas, they may have some catching-up to do in comparison to China, where life is increasingly returning to normalcy, with no widespread restrictions and the economy remaining on a recovery trajectory.

In another indication of how life is getting back to normal, many foreign nationals may have a better Christmas in China than in their home countries. In Shanghai, many foreigners have already started celebrating.

Apart from the health crisis, Europe and the US are also facing a severe economic crisis, with surging unemployment and serious contractions. The IMF has warned of the "scarring effects" for growth in the eurozone, while predicting the US economy would shrink by 4.1 percent in 2020. The Chinese economy is expected to grow by around 2 percent this year and as much as 8 percent in 2021, according to the IMF.

That stark contrast is also reflected in the shifting orders for vendors in Yiwu, where many have started to sell Chinese-style holiday products instead of Christmas goods, making the impact of declining export orders less severe on their businesses.

"[The declining orders] are not deadly for domestic businesses because they have not over-produced… and while overseas demand is dropping, the domestic demand has been stable," Cai said, adding that domestic orders for the upcoming Chinese New Year season are rising. 

Posted in: ECONOMY

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