31 March 2020

Covid-19, International Trade and Global China: Reflections from Yiwu

By Magnus Marsden

The Covid-19 epidemic has in all likelihood brought to an end the fieldwork activities of the TRODITIES project. Since 2015, team members have documented and analysed the dynamics of the Chinese international trade city of Yiwu that is a base to over 12,000 foreign traders and a key hub in the procurement of ‘small commodities’ ranging from toys to clothing and hardware to electrical goods that are sold in wholesale markets, retail stores and supermarkets across the world.

Given that over the past four years team members have conducted deep and extensive fieldwork in Yiwu and in the settings to which commodities procured in the city are sold elsewhere in Asia and Europe, we are fortunate that this situation will not affect the overall ability of the project to meet its aims and objectives. In September 2019, in collaboration with our partner institution in Yiwu, the Yiwu College of Commerce and Industry, we held an End of Project conference in the city. The conference gathered team members, Chinese and international scholars, policy makers working in the Yiwu Municipality, as well as several international traders based in Yiwu. The cancellation, however, of trips planned to Afghanistan and Ukraine with the aim of conveying research results both to researchers and traders in those countries is disappointing.

Covid-19 is illuminating, however, several critical issues that relate to the TRODITIES project, and some of these, at least, can be studied from afar. Many researchers on the project have extensive contacts with international traders in Yiwu and maintain these on a regular basis, mostly by way of contacting traders using the Chinese messaging App, WeChat, as well as following the feeds that traders often post on WeChat’s ‘moments’ facility. As fieldworkers from senior scholars to PhD candidates in the midst of or about to embark on research across the world have to rethink their fieldwork plans at the current moment, pointing towards some of the ways in which data collection may continue in the circumstances in which we all currently live might be helpful more generally.

One set of issues relates to the ways in which the local authorities communicate changing policies to international traders in Yiwu. As was the case in other cities in China, Yiwu’s authorities introduced strict measures to limit the rate of infections in the city. These included, in particular, a significant delay after the end of the Chinese New Year holiday of the opening of the city’s Futian market. The Futian market is an enormous complex that is visited in person by traders from all over the world in order to procure the ‘small commodities’ that are sold by wholesale shops largely owned by Chinese merchants and factories. The market’s annual closure for the Chinese New Year – a time of year that sees most international traders based in Yiwu either returning to their home countries or socialising over games of cards with one another in the city’s deserted restaurants - was extended by several weeks in 2020. Traders intending to visit the city from abroad after the vacation period were also told by the city’s authorities to delay their visits to Yiwu. During this period, international traders arriving in the city were intercepted on arrival in Yiwu by the authorities and told to isolate themselves in their hotels or the accommodation in which they stayed. Restrictions were also introduced and enforced – including temperature checks - in terms of allowing traders in Yiwu to enter the market complex. As a result, the mode in which traders have historically purchased commodities in Yiwu – by visiting shops in Futian, procuring samples and eventually buying whosesale for export – has undergone a major transformation. Instead, exports are increasingly based on repeat orders or a reliance on Chinese suppliers and business partners.  

Information about these measures was conveyed to foreign traders by Yiwu’s Municipal Authorities, mostly using announcements that were translated into multiple languages - including Arabic, Farsi, and Russian - and then posted on WeChat. Exploring such policies remotely, might illuminate the specific nature of the response of authorities in a global trade hub to a pandemic. How do local authorities represent a global city at a moment at which the wide scale closure of international borders raised the possibility of unforeseen barriers to long-distance trade? Equally interestingly, a consideration of the messages delivered by policy makers, the languages in which they were delivered, as well as the platforms used to do so, also stands to offer insights into the types of knowledge and understanding that policy makers in Yiwu hold about the activities, identities and social worlds of foreign merchants active in the city. A key question that several TRODITIES researchers have asked is whether policy makers in the city develop policies with particular groups of traders in mind or do so in a more all-enveloping fashion.

A second key theme to have emerged during the project is the role played by foreign traders themselves in circulating through their networks – socially and electronically – knowledge about policy relating to public health that is developed at the municipal, provincial and national levels. Until China’s decision to dramatically reduce incoming international travel, including to foreign nationals holding valid visas, on March 28th 2020, the restrictions on mobility to Yiwu were relaxed by the authorities from mid-March onwards. Against this backdrop, international traders based in the city spoke publically about the situation in Yiwu. Many more recorded video messages for circulation on WeChat that announced the resumption of trade in the city, and encouraged foreign traders to visit and to resume their trading activities.

A striking aspect of these video messages, however, is the fact that many of them were recorded by international merchants in Chinese rather than in the languages spoken in their own communities. To the sound of the pounding beat of stern if uplifting music, a smartly dressed man from Afghanistan speaking from his plush trading office in Yiwu, delivers the following message in impeccable Chinese:

If you enter the international market, I can assure you that you won’t return with empty hands! This is Yiwu! This is China! This is the market! In Yiwu, Zhejiang, the virus age is over! Yiwu is waiting for you! China is waiting for you! Opportunity is waiting for you!

The intended audiences of such messages, rather than being the foreign traders seeking to travel to the city on purchasing visits appears, appear to have been Chinese speakers themselves. Were such messages intended to convey the loyalty of international merchants – individuals or groups – to Yiwu and China more generally, for example? A detailed exploration of the content of such messages, as well as an attempt to understand the motivations of those who produced them, might help us to understand the merchants’ diplomatic sensibilities, their ability to navigate the choppy waters between competing geopolitical projects – a central theme of the project that many of its outputs directly address – as well as their understandings of emergent geopolitical dynamics.

Third, the epidemiology of Covid-19 is illuminating patterns of mobility and exchange that are often downplayed in conventional approaches to the study of ‘global China’. In particular, the rapid increase in cases of the disease in Iran, as well as evidence that Chinese citizens having carried the virus from Iran to the predominantly Muslim Ningxia Hui autonomous region in North West China, underscores the depth and significance of Iran-China connections. This geography of Iran-China connectivity lies in part – but by no means entirely - as a result of the migratory patterns of China’s sizeable Muslim minority communities, especially for linguistic and religious education as well as trade. Iran-China connectivity, however, is often overlooked in the literature on ‘global China’ because of the tendency to focus on China-US relations, China’s growing role in Africa, and the cultural, political and economic ties that China and countries in the Arab world have cultivated with one another, especially since the mid-1980s. More generally, it is also widely assumed that Arabic rather than Persian is regarded amongst Muslims in China as being prestigious language of both religious learning and commerce, even if until the nineteenth century at least the teaching of Islam to Muslims in northern China was heavily informed by Persian texts and traditions.

Fourth, supply chains of small commodities are likely be maintained by the limited number of international traders permanently based in Yiwu. Such traders will be in a position to arrange for the transport of commodities to markets across the world: their advertisements advise foreign traders that visits to China are ‘banned’ and that instead of travelling orders should be placed with companies based in the country. Yet the responses of merchants living in settings ranging from Kabul to Aleppo, Tashkent to Odessa, and London to Budapest, will also be critical. To what extent, for example will the pandemic result in the realisation of one of the most significant ambitions of Yiwu’s policy-makers: the intensification of the role played in e-commerce platforms in the transport of goods from Yiwu to the rest of the world and a concurrent reduction in the significance of the city as a destination point for mobile merchants? Similarly, will traders working in large wholesale markets in cities such as Odessa and St Petersburg consolidate their activities in the field of ‘internet businesses? If so, might such a shift have implications not only for such complex social and economic spaces, and the political processes with which they are interlinked, but also for the role played by women in such familial trading activities? 

Fifth and finally, it is also important not to forget the human aspects of the current pandemic and the particular ways in which policy relating to it is affecting long-distance traders whose modes of making a living revolves around the provision of commodities in Yiwu. The families of many such traders relies on the ability to procure commodities in Yiwu and sell them in the markets around the world in which they work. With travel to China closed to all non-diplomatic personnel, and markets in the dispersed global settings in which they work closed, many such traders will no doubt be facing considerable economic difficulties. Given the nature of the disease, such concerns will inevitably be of even greater significance to older traders who often live apart from extended families having migrated in search of trading opportunities. Moreover, traders active in this type of trade since the late 1980s and early 1990s may also find it more difficult to develop their businesses in new directions. WeChat posts suggest that younger traders are rapidly responding to changing market requirements by engaging in the wholesale of facemasks and even of items purported to be Covid-19 test kits. At the time of writing, no evidence was available of a switch to the sale of sex toys, another commodity type widely available for sale in Yiwu that has also seen a rise in sales in 2020.

Thanks to Tang Man for translating traders’ messages in Chinese and posing questions about their significance, and to Ka-Kin Cheuk for bringing my attention to developments in Yiwu and the nearby city of Keqiao as my mind strayed elsewhere.

Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex and PI of the TRODITIES project funded by ERC.