Who will win the US election? Chinese vendors at ‘the world’s supermarket’ think they have the answer, Society News - ThinkChina

(Photos: Yang Danxu, unless otherwise stated)

Come November, the identity of the next US president will be revealed. But business owner Li Qingxiang (pseudonym) from Yiwu, a city in China’s Zhejiang province, already knows who the victor will be.    

Li owns a small shop of less than five square metres in Yiwu International Trade Market. Without batting an eyelid, she makes a prediction that even political pundits dare not make: “Of course Trump will win.”  

Her conviction lies in a set of mysterious data surrounding the “Yiwu index”.  

Location and demographics of Yiwu. (Graphic: Jace Yip)

‘Orders do not lie’ 

From the sacks beneath the shelves, Li pulls out a blue banner measuring five by three feet. It has the words “Trump 2020” printed on it. Beneath the big wordings is incumbent US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign slogan “Keep America Great”.    

Since the end of last year, her factory in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, has produced over 100,000 banners of this kind, which are sold for 4.80 RMB (approximately S$0.95) apiece. On the other hand, only a mere few thousand banners of the same size for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden have been produced.     

She is thus very certain that Trump has a better chance of winning than his opponent Biden because “orders do not lie”.   

A Trump banner sold in a shop in the Yiwu International Trade Market.

While Biden is leading the polls in the US, a Ms Zhou from Yiwu’s travel necessities shop still wishes to place her bet on Trump.   

This salesperson told Lianhe Zaobao that her colleague from the international business department was still receiving endless orders for Trump’s campaign merchandise. A few days ago, a colleague also sent a message in the group chat requesting the factory to quickly process a batch of banners for Trump.  

According to Ms Zhou, the factory has been receiving banner orders for the US presidential election since the end of last year. It first produced banners of various designs — over ten, to be exact — for Trump’s campaign before gradually receiving orders for Biden’s flags over the past two months. But there was only one design for Biden’s banners, and the quantity produced was less than one-fifth of Trump’s. 

Campaign merchandise reflects voter sentiment

Every election, huge volumes of campaign merchandise — flags, baseball caps, T-shirts, rubber wristbands, latex masks and so on — for various US presidential candidates are purchased from the small international trade city of Yiwu in central Zhejiang and exported to the US. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic this year, masks and other face coverings printed with the presidential candidates’ names and slogans were added to the lot.  

Industry workers joke that the Yiwu index can have a butterfly effect on the Consumer Price Index on the other side of the world.

Known as “the world’s supermarket”, Yiwu is the world's biggest wholesale market of small commodities. Various China-made products across the country are consolidated here before they are exported to the world.

Shops selling small commodities line "the world's supermarket".

Periodic “Yiwu index” reports reflecting the level of market activity are released based on the sales of commodities. Industry workers joke that the Yiwu index can have a butterfly effect on the Consumer Price Index on the other side of the world.  

...the stronger the financial resources of the candidates, the more campaign merchandise they can purchase; the more supporters they have, the better the sales of their campaign products.

In the lead-up to the presidential election in 2016, American commentators generally thought that Hillary Clinton would win. Yiwu vendors, however, successfully predicted that it would be Trump who would have the last laugh based on campaign merchandise orders of both candidates.    

Following their accurate prediction, international pundits started to treat these orders as indicators of the US electoral situation. This method is not unfounded too — the stronger the financial resources of the candidates, the more campaign merchandise they can purchase; the more supporters they have, the better the sales of their campaign products.  

According to statistics, as of 21 August, Trump raised a total of US$1.2 billion (roughly S$1.64 billion) while Biden raised a mere US$699 million. As such, Trump is investing much more in campaign merchandise than Biden. 

Based on the huge amount of orders they received for masks printed with the words “Black Lives Matter”, Yiwu vendors knew that the demonstrations would drag on for some time.  

Yiwu a unique window to global dynamics

While there is no rigorous scientific basis for predictions based on orders, international trends and changes in the commercial world have more than once been accurately transmitted to this city with a population of 1.3 million. What will happen next in Europe and the US? Ask the Yiwu vendors.   

In late May this year, the death of a black man George Floyd at the hands of the police sparked several weeks of Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice across the US and even Europe. Based on the huge amount of orders they received for masks printed with the words “Black Lives Matter”, Yiwu vendors knew that the demonstrations would drag on for some time.   

One of the entrances to the Yiwu International Trade Market.

All large-scale events require props and materials. As the world’s largest small commodities wholesale factory, Yiwu has become a unique window to global dynamics. Yet the majority of local vendors do not like to waste time talking about these things.   

“We’re just running a small business, we don’t know who’d make a better US president,” says Li.  

With business acumen, Li pays close attention to relevant news and quickly translates them into actions. Over two weeks ago, she has already replaced her Apple phone with a Huawei one. She says, “Didn’t they say that many functions of the Apple phone cannot be used anymore come September? I think Trump wants to sanction them? I contact my clients through WeChat. If I can’t use WeChat anymore, all the records in my phone would be gone.”

Vendors care only about doing business

While she has accepted several orders of Trump merchandise, Ying Tong (pseudonym), who runs a printed mask business, does not hope that Trump will be re-elected. In fact, she hopes that Biden will win.   

A few days ago, she saw a video of Biden’s speech when she was scrolling Douyin and was instantly drawn to him. She says, “Biden said that he’ll make it mandatory for all Americans to wear masks if he won. If that happens, we would be able to sell a lot of masks.”  

Masks sold as part of Trump's campaign merchandise.

However, while vendors here play a part in the US elections once every four years in their own unique ways, most of them actually know nothing about the intense presidential election taking place on the other side of the world. Some do not even know who Trump is.

When I tried interviewing a store owner who sells face coverings, she was puzzled and confused. “What elections?” she asked. I then showed her photos of a face covering printed with Trump’s face on my phone, to which she replied, “Oh. We printed this person’s face on our products before. How many do you want?”   

Opportunities in crisis in Yiwu

The predictions about the US election going around Yiwu may be just idle talk, but "the world’s supermarket" is a genuine barometer for international trade and the global economy.

The temperature in Yiwu in early autumn is a blazing 38 degrees Celsius outdoors, but going into Yiwu International Trade Market, one is hit by how cold and deserted it is. At 11am, quite a few toy shops are not yet open, while some stall owners are chatting across the empty lanes. Others are watching drama series on their computers, or just dozing off.

Someone calculated that if one spent ten hours a day in the market and a minute at each stall, it would take four whole months to get through the entire market.

An empty corridor in Yiwu.

This is the largest market complex for small commodities in Yiwu, comprising five huge buildings over a total area 18 times the size of the “Birds Nest” sports stadium in Beijing, with 75,000 stalls selling over 2 million varieties of small commodities to 210 countries around the world.

Someone calculated that if one spent ten hours a day in the market and a minute at each stall, it would take four whole months to get through the entire market.

Each level in each zone is categorised — bags and luggage, jewellery, umbrellas, stationery. From gym equipment worth thousands to buttons worth a few cents, they can all be found here. In the words of the locals: “There are no items you cannot find, only items you cannot imagine.”

Business plummets as pandemic hits exports

Before the pandemic, the Yiwu International Trade Market saw over 20,000 people a day.

Vendor Luo Dexiang tells us that the zone selling toys, jewellery, and crafts is the oldest and most popular in the market. Before the pandemic, it was “chock-full of people”, but now the crowd is only about a third of what it used to be. “A lot of those who came were foreigners, but now we need to wait for our borders to reopen,” he says.

Over 500,000 purchasers visit Yiwu each year, from the Middle East, India, Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, and others. But with the global pandemic, international travel has been restricted, and now the scattered foreign faces seen are mostly long-term vendors living in Yiwu.

A mask and wig vendor in Yiwu.

Without foreign buyers, it is difficult to grow new customers. Most small-commodities vendors can only communicate online to hold on to their old customers, and Luo’s shop has seen significantly fewer orders from old customers.

Luo sells wigs, party costumes, and monster masks, but as people are unable to gather during the pandemic, sales of these party supplies have plummeted. The shop recently received an order of about 10,000 RMB from an old customer from the Philippines; in previous years, this customer’s orders were about 100,000 RMB.

Vendors find a way to survive

However, amid the anxiety, helplessness, and uncertainty, there is also the desire to survive, rather than be a sitting duck. Accessories vendors take turns to go in and out of the live streaming studio set up in the market to promote their products online. Some vendors live stream from their shops to promote new products to overseas customers.

The studio where vendors can live stream to sell their products.

Bedding vendor Zhou Jinfu (pseudonym) recalls that even after SARS in 2003 and the financial crisis of 2009, “things were never this bad”. Fortunately, the factory made it through the worst in the first half of the year, and slowly started to recover in July.

He says, “Ups and downs are normal. There is opportunity in crisis. If business is good, no one would think of improving. Everyone would count on old customers and products. Now, with that sense of crisis, people are looking for breakthroughs and innovations.”

Over the past six months, Zhou’s company has pushed for product innovation, such as incorporating cultural elements and developing a brand story, as well as experimenting with new materials and improving production techniques.

He says that previously, with a steady stream of foreign orders, the domestic market was overlooked. Now, there is a realisation that selling within the country is a way out. “A market of 1.4 billion people is right at our doorstep, so why go after something far at the expense of something near?”

In April this year, the number of shops in Yiwu broke 600,000.

‘Trading chicken feathers for sugar’?

Yiwu’s difficulties are not totally due to Covid-19. Before the pandemic swept the world’s economy and trade, this town built on the small-commodities economy was already facing difficulties reinventing itself.

E-commerce vendors pose a challenge to brick-and-mortar shops, while rising costs of materials and manpower have reduced their profits. Traditional workshops are also facing pressure to change as the economy undergoes restructuring.

Many local vendors sighed that “business is getting more difficult”. However, few have backed out.

In April this year, the number of shops in Yiwu broke 600,000. According to statistics, it took nearly 30 years for the number of shops to hit 100,000, but only 10 months to go from 500,000 to 600,000.

The vendors in Yiwu continue the spirit of "trading chicken feathers for sugar", meaning to do any trade for profit, no matter how small.

Many vendors in Yiwu, including the “newbies” who have flocked there in recent years to set up their business, all believe that as long as they pass on the spirit of “trading chicken feathers for sugar” (鸡毛换糖), they can continue to create a miracle.

“Trading chicken feathers for sugar” is a sort of cry, or slogan. During the 1970s and 1980s, when resources were scarce, the vendors of Yiwu would walk along the streets and alleys shaking their rattle drums, trading pieces of processed sugar for unwanted items like chicken feathers, just to make a small profit. This is how the Yiwu market began.

This urge to fight for success, recognising that every bit counts and seizing opportunities as they come along, together with hard work and pragmatism, has rubbed off on generations of Yiwu people and settlers. Zhou Liang (pseudonym) came to Yiwu 15 years ago from Sichuan. He now has his own factory with tens of millions in annual sales.

He told this reporter that the most important business lesson he learned in Yiwu is there are no shortcuts to success. “A rubber band, a button, a keychain, may earn a few cents in profit, but as long as you’re willing to work and go for it, there is money to be earned.”

Designer Liu Yuanli shows off her creations.

Liu Yuanli left Anhui for Yiwu in 2012. Initially, her monthly pay was only 2,500 RMB, but she picked up some design skills and was able to find a job as a product designer with a monthly pay of 14,000 RMB.

But Liu Yuanli has not given up on her dream of setting up her own business. Two years ago, she and her husband put in 200,000 RMB to set up a workshop to produce children’s hair accessories under her own brand. The fledgling business is uncertain due to the pandemic, but Liu is determined: “We should go for it while we’re young. It is our own business, no matter how small.”

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