By Zhang Yu, Global Times
Many things may come to mind when you think of the Belt and Road Initiative, but nothing showcases the initiative better than Yiwu, a city in East China’s Zhejiang Province, known as the home to the world’s biggest wholesale market. The Global Times visited Yiwu earlier in May and interviewed Chinese and foreign businessmen about what they think of the changes that happened to the city in the past decades.
For many, Yiwu is where traders from around the world come to purchase Made in China commodities to take back to their respective countries. But that mode is changing.
As China further deepens its economic reform, Yiwu is also hoping to become a new hub for global imports. In the fifth district of Yiwu’s International Trade City, a China imported commodities mall recently opened to sell products imported world-wide to Chinese retailers and consumers.
Wine from Spain, crystal and glassware from the Czech Republic, handicrafts from Africa and daily necessities from Japan can all be found here at a reasonable price, selling to both wholesale and retail buyers.
Many businessmen said Yiwu’s ambition to evolve from an export hub to an import and export center shows how Chinese economy has soared and the lifestyle of Chinese people has improved in recent decades.
Yiwu Dajin Department Store, for example, started importing crystal glassware from the Czech Republic about a decade ago.
“We started out manufacturing our own glassware. But then we found that imported glassware are more exquisite. In the meantime the living standard of Chinese people is rising, so there is a market for these higher-end goods. Since Czech is famous for its crystal glassware, we began to import them,” Zhou Xiaoping, manager of the store, told the Global Times.
Zhejiang Mundiver Import and Export, which now imports food and wine from Spain, also used to be a typical export company. But it began to import goods from Spain in 2010 as the Yiwu government encouraged more imports to the city.
“Now we feel we made the right choice. Yiwu is now becoming a base for imported goods in China, attracting dealers from all over the country,” Jin Haijun, general manager of the company, told the Global Times.
Quality and honor
The import business in Yiwu has been further boosted by the Belt and Road Initiative, especially after the launch of freight trains between Yiwu and Europe.
Yiwu currently boasts 10 freight train routes to Europe, covering countries including Russia, London, Spain and the Czech Republic. In January 2015, Mundiver was one of the first companies to ship their goods from Madrid to China via the first freight train from Madrid to Yiwu.
“Previously it took 35 to 45 days for our goods to be shipped from Madrid to China by sea. With the new freight train, the shipping time is cut to 16 days, much faster than before. It also helps our cash turnover,” Jin told the Global Times.
Zhejiang Online reported in May 2018 that the route saw 49 trips from Europe to Yiwu in 2017, carrying 3,670 twenty-foot equivalent units, up 822 percent from 2016. And according to Yiwu’s customs, the value of imported goods in 2017 was 10 times the amount of 2016.
In terms of the future of Yiwu, no one has it better than Luo Lingjuan, a 50-something businesswoman who was born and raised there.
From a street vendor in the 1970s selling clothes and cosmetics, Luo’s business grew larger over the decades through her own hard work. She is now head of a multinational business corporation linking China and Africa. Luo moved to South Africa in the early 2000s and returned to China in 2012 under the invitation of the Yiwu government.
She is now hoping to introduce African culture, art and products to China by building an Africa-themed park. At the same time Luo wants to help other small private enterprises in China enter Africa through partnership and brand building.
“In different times, people have different needs. In today’s era, the way of living has changed, and so have our business model. A lot of companies in Yiwu are building their own brands, which represent their quality and honor,” Luo told the Global Times.
For foreign traders in Yiwu, their understanding of Chinese products starts from an old Chinese idiom.
Almost all of the foreign traders interviewed by the Global Times mentioned the idiom “You get what you pay for” when asked what they think of Made in China products.
“There are products of good and bad quality, and it all depends on how much you are willing to pay. Some of our clients want cheaper goods, and some want better ones,” Mohamedou Dedde from Mauritania, who came to Yiwu in 2005, told the Global Times.
Sidimalek Ahmed, another Mauritanian, echoed this statement. “Previously, many Mauritanians had a stereotype that Chinese products are bad in quality. But after they came to Yiwu and saw the products in the markets, they changed their minds. They now know that there are many good products,” he told the Global Times.
Both Dedde and Ahmed describe China as their “second hometown.” They estimate that there are more than 1,000 Mauritanians in Yiwu.
Abdullah, a Syrian trader in Yiwu, attributes Yiwu’s growing appeal to China’s opening-up policy. “Previously, if you wanted to buy something, you could only buy them in Germany or Japan, which is expensive. After China opened up, we could come to China and choose from a wide range of inexpensive products,” he said.
He and two of his compatriots started a company in 2014, shipping 100 containers with worth 300,000 yuan ($46,699) to 400,000 yuan each back to Yiwu each year, fully loaded with construction materials such as brushes and construction tools.
Some foreign traders say communication with Chinese businessmen is now smoother thanks to their improved language abilities. Omer Mohamed Ahmed Dal, a Sudanese who lives in Yiwu with his wife and two children, recall that when he arrived in the city in 2005, it was difficult for him to communicate with local businessmen.
“Now a lot of Chinese here can speak Arabic and English, and the products are better,” he said.
Some traders are also thinking about bringing products from Africa to China. “Previously, it was difficult for African food products to enter China due to their bad packaging, which prevents them from remaining fresh after the long journey to China,” Omer told the Global Times.
“Now, many people have brought Chinese packaging machines to Africa. With better packaging, African food products can enter China,” he said.