浙江

Yiwu: China’s Little Known Capital of Commerce

Lacquer box, from China First Capital blog post

 

What is the most international city in China? Shanghai? Beijing? Surely, it must be Hong Kong? No, the most international city in China is one most people outside China have never heard of: Yiwu, in Zhejiang Province

Yiwu is about three hours southwest of Shanghai, with no sites of any importance, and a somewhat rundown city center. Few international tourists will ever set foot there. And yet, at this very moment, there are more foreigners thronging there than anywhere else in China. 

Yiwu, you see, is where the Third World comes to shop. In the last ten years, it’s become the nexus of a large, complicated global trade route, the main supply depot for tens of thousands of shops all across the world. Yiwu’s streets and hotels are filled everyday with thousands of traders from Africa, Russia and the Middle East. They come there to make money, which they do by buying goods by the container load in Yiwu to ship back and sell in their home countries.  

This is petty capitalism on a grand scale: thousands of foreign small businessmen buying from thousands of Yiwu merchants, who rent stalls in the huge market centers spread across the center of Yiwu. At a guess, there must be over 15,000 stalls in these market centers, each staffed by a local, each catering mainly to the foreigners who spend most of their days bargain hunting. 

Mainly, the stuff for sale caters to the taste of this foreign market. Little if any of it would find buyers in US, Western Europe or, increasingly, China itself. Indeed, from what I could tell, more of the world’s hideous clothing ends up for sale in Yiwu than anywhere else. There is enough polyester and other petrochemical-derived materials on display to power the world’s ocean shipping fleet for generations.

Besides clothing, there are a large number of stalls selling other basics of poorer economies, like printed plastic bags, cheap carpets, plastic jewelry, lighting and other house wares. If you wanted to know how people dress and furnish their homes in Isfahan, Aleppo, Izmir, Rostock or Accra, you could get a decent impression by walking through the market centers of Yiwu. 

How and why Yiwu became the center of this multi-billion dollar trade remains a mystery to me. Yiwu has no natural advantages of any kind: it’s far from main transports hubs, hemmed in by mountains, and never developed much of an industrial base. The main export ports of Ningbo and Shanghai are both over three hours away by truck.

Clearly, there was no central government diktat saying Yiwu would be China’s “window on the Third World”. It seems to have happened spontaneously. To accommodate all the foreign traders, basic English is much more widely spoken than anywhere else in China. Even the lady at the ticket booth in the Yiwu bus station can use English to sell a one-way bus ticket to Guangzhou to an African on his way home. 

The English is not always correct. Outside one of the many shops selling sex toys, I saw a sign reading  “Aduit uppiies”. I assume, from the customer base inside, they got the Arabic version correct on the sign. 

By the standards of other successful Chinese cities, Yiwu is more down-and-dirty. There are none of the showpiece infrastructure projects like new expressways and elaborate modern skyscrapers that proliferate in other Chinese cities. While clearly all this trade has made many in Yiwu very rich, the city looks like the China of twenty years ago. Its market stalls are not the kind of place where most Chinese care to shop these days. Chinese, especially urban-dwellers, like well-designed brand-name chain stores with higher-quality merchandise and slick packaging. 

Walking around Yiwu, you get the sense that at least 10% of the population is foreign. Nowhere else in China even comes close. The foreigners are mainly Arabs and Persians, but there are also many Africans and Russians crowding the streets, markets, restaurants and hotels. 

Yiwu has more “foreign food” restaurants than anywhere else in China. Most offer Arab and Turkish food. Indeed, much of downtown Yiwu has the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar, with clutches of men sitting around smoking hookahs and fingering prayer beads.

You are as likely to hear “Salaam Alekum” as “ni hao” walking the streets of Yiwu. All kinds of services have sprung up in Yiwu to cater to the Middle Easterners. There are halal butchers, coffee shops selling Turkish coffee, manufacturers of the long Arab thawb worn by men. Less delightfully, a Chinese street portrait artist displays drawings of Barack Obama, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Osama Bin-Laden. 

I like Arab food, and have eaten a lot of it, both in the Middle East in London. Yiwu’s version was actually quite authentic and tasty. Inside the restaurant I went to, the loudspeakers were playing a recitation of the Koran. Arab and African men sat eating their lunch. There are few Arab women to be seen. 

African women, on the other hand, are thick on the ground, fulfilling their reputation as some of the most talented of all the world’s market traders. I spoke to one lady from Ghana, who comes to Yiwu three times a year, and buys enough each time to fill up a 40-foot container – kids and adult clothes, shoes, carpets, blankets. The profit margins are good. After deducting the $2,000 airfare, the $300 for a Chinese visa, food and lodging in China, plus the shipping costs back to Ghana (and the bribes needed to get the goods out of Ghanaian Customs) she still earns a tidy profit on each trip.

Her capitalist Odyssey, repeated thousands of times a week, with containers bound for the world’s most glamourless spots,  is what keeps Yiwu booming. There is nothing petty about the petty traders of Yiwu. 

It’s fair to say that Yiwu has built its wealth, to some extent, on the misfortune of others. The traders who make the long trip to Yiwu do so, mainly because their countries are criminally mismanaged. In these countries of the Middle East and Africa, there are no local manufacturers making goods at a price and quality that can match that of China, even when you factor in the high transport costs to get people and merchandise to and from Yiwu and the bribes and other levies that must be paid to make sure the items reach local store shelves. Prices in Yiwu are not particularly low, more “retail” than “wholesale”. The traders buy in relatively small quantities, meaning Yiwu merchants can charge higher prices and earn fatter margins for themselves.

 This sad and persistent reality of corruption, economic mismanagement and political tyranny in countries of the Middle East and Africa guarantees that Yiwu will continue to thrive for many years. Yiwu’s market economy was built by catering to places with no real market economy of their own.


 

Zhejiang Province: Why It’s China’s Richest and Will Be Richer Very Soon

QIng Dynasty vase, from China First Capital blog post

Geography is destiny. Nowhere is this more true, of course, than in China. The country is the world’s fourth-largest, in terms of territory. But, much of the country is inhospitable: with deserts, mountains,  loess and other areas less fit for human habitation. In a population of 1.4 billion, over 550 million are peasants and farmers. Yet, only 14.86% of the land in China is well-suited for cultivation. Too many hands with too little land to hoe. That basically sums up China’s vast agricultural economy.    

The most fertile agricultural areas are also the ones that have had the highest rate of industrial and overall economic development in the last 30 years. The three richest provinces in China also have the highest concentrations of fertile land: Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Together, these three coastal provinces have a population of about 230 million, or 17.5% of China’s total. But, their combined share of China’s gdp is almost twice that. 

When economic reform got underway, these provinces were already relatively well-off, because of the high quality and productivity of its farm output. They were not as heavily industrialized as more northern parts of China, which got the major share of government investment and attention during the first 30 years after the 1949 revolution. 

This lack of industrial infrastructure turned out to be a decisive advantage for the three provinces, especially Guangdong and Zhejiang.  As reform took hold, they weren’t weighed down by the bloat of forced industrialization. The rich farmland and relatively high living standards helped create a greater sense of economic security and this, in turn, bred more of an entrepreneurial mindset.

As the Chinese government relaxed controls on private business, Guangdong and Zhejiang were the first to seize the opportunities. Capital from private sources was more readily available because of the profitability of farming in the region. Entrepreneurship flourished. To this day, one can travel around Zhejiang and Guangdong and rarely, if ever, come across a state-owned business. Their economies are almost entirely in the hands of private business, with larger, private SME in the lead. 

Travel north or west and the situation is markedly different. Here, subsistence farming was often the norm. There were no large agricultural surpluses to finance the growth of private business. State-owned companies, often of the “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” variety,  have predominated. The private sector still fights for its share of resources in these other regions of China. Those with entrepreneurial flair often emigrate. Shenzhen is particularly full of such transplants, drawn from every corner of China. I’ve met many successful entrepreneurs here from inland provinces, especially Jiangxi, Hunan, Sichuan and Hubei.  

I’m in Zhejiang as I write this, and am stuck struck by the beauty of its scenery as well as the industriousness and wealth of its people. It reminds me most of Northern Italy, where I’ve spent a lot of time, earlier in my life. Northern Italy is one of the world’s most prosperous places, as well as among its most visually stunning.

In both places, mountains are close by nearly everywhere, and over recent decades, much of the rich farmland has been plowed under to build factories. Northern Italy includes most of that country’s (and the world’s) most successful private-sector companies and brands, including Benetton, Luxottica, Armani. The food is also particularly excellent, another trait it shares in common with Zhejiang. 

Northern Italy, statistically, is the richest area, per capita, in Europe – richer even than next-door Switzerland. Zhejiang, similarly, is the richest place in China, per capita. While Zhejiang can’t yet claim its home to any internationally-renowned brands, it does have China’s strongest nucleus of SME businesses. Many of these, in coming decades, will likely grow into large businesses that dominate their markets. One Chinese auto brand, Geely, which is about to complete its purchase of Volvo from Ford, is based in Zhejiang.                                               

Zhejiang is unique among provinces in China. It has three cities that vie for commercial and entrepreneurial supremacy. Wenzhou, Ningpo and Hangzhou act like separate pumps, channeling energy and wealth into the province’s circulatory system. I spent time recently in Fuyang, the area about 30 miles to the south of Hangzhou. We’re now lucky to have an outstanding client SME in that city. Fuyang is mainly mountainous. Thin strips of flat richly-fertile land hold much of the population, transport infrastructure and industry. 

It’s hard to imagine there could be a more productive slice of our planet than this flat land in Fuyang, including in Northern Italy. In a hectic 36 hours, I visited six different companies in Fuyang, each from a different industry, and each already of a scale that puts it in the top flight of all China’s SME. They are a very small sample of the great entrepreneurial output of this area of Zhejiang.  I was very impressed with each company, and with each “laoban” (老板), Chinese for “boss”. 

These companies, and Zhejiang itself, embody the two most powerful forces that are now reshaping the Chinese economy: the twin reliance on private sector SME, and on producing for China’s domestic market rather than manufacturing OEM products for export.   

Zhejiang started out with a lot of natural advantages that other regions in China could only envy: the fertile land, an abundance of fresh water, inland waterways (including the Grand Canal) and plentiful rainfall, proximity to the coast and the major ports in Ningpo and nearby Shanghai. But, it’s richest blessing is a population of talented, instinctive entrepreneurs. They’ve taken what nature provided and augmented it, building a thriving, vibrant industrial economy in an area that 20 years ago was still mainly farmland and rice paddies. 

Other people’s idea of a perfect holiday is a week on some beach, or a visit to a tourist city like Rome or Paris. Mine is to spend time in a place with great food and great entrepreneurs, visiting their factories, hearing their strategies to conquer new markets and seize new opportunities to make money. 

Zhejiang really is my kind of place.