Mainland flexes muscles with Palestinian scarves

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 January, 2011, 12:00am

First the vuvuzela, now the keffiyeh.

China's reputation as the world's factory captured worldwide attention during last summer's World Cup as makers of the vuvuzela - the plastic noise-making trumpet that South African soccer fans love. Today, the mainland has garnered a virtual monopoly on the symbol of the Palestinian liberation movement.

The keffiyeh, the signature headscarf worn by late Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, is a handicraft indigenous to his people. But now, only one Palestinian factory is left making them, the owners say, because the low cost of Chinese production has put them out of business.

'We have so many problems with the Chinese keffiyeh,' said Talal Hirbawi, a member of the family that owns Hirbawi Textiles, the last Palestinian keffiyeh factory. Established in 1963, the Hebron-based business is nearly as old as the Palestinian struggle itself.

Hirbawi used to sell about 20,000 keffiyeh in its heyday in the mid-1990s, when Arafat visited the factory personally to buy its scarves, made by roughly three dozen local Palestinians.

Since Chinese keffiyeh production started growing about 10 years ago, the Hirbawi operation has shrunk significantly.

Now the factory employs only one non-family worker and sells 1,000 to 2,000 keffiyeh a year.

'The quality of Chinese keffiyeh is not as good, but they are a lot cheaper,' Hirbawi said, explaining that Palestinian keffiyeh were all 100 per cent cotton.

Chinese keffiyeh producer Shi Qinghua begs to differ. Shi's Hua Qing Islam & National Series of Articles, a Ministry of Commerce- advertised supplier of cultural and Islamic goods to international vendors, primarily in the Middle East, offers different grades of keffiyeh, ranging from a cheap polyblend to a sturdier, more intricately embroidered approximation of the Levantine original.

Besides, Shi says, the secret to his competitive edge isn't about the quality; it's about low wages and associated costs.

'Chinese workers are willing to work for less, and the cost of production in the countryside is very cheap,' he said, explaining the business model that has effectively enabled him to sell Palestinians their own scarves.

His factory is located in a suburb of Suzhou, Jiangsu , a four-hour drive north from his office in Yiwu , Zhejiang , where an enclave of Arab merchants has been growing.

Shi's business has been expanding steadily since he opened shop in 1999, when an Arab merchant first commissioned him to create the headscarves in bulk.

'All my customers come to look for me. Before, I was going to look for them,' he said, explaining that three of his major clients were distributors into Palestinian territory. He estimates that they buy an average of 12,000 keffiyeh per transaction to take back home - 12 times Hirbawi's recent annual sales.

Much as it shocked the world to find that the vuvuzelas were all produced in a Zhejiang factory not far from Shi's office, worldwide supporters of the Palestinian cause are often surprised and even upset to learn that their keffiyeh, a piece of Palestinian iconography, are woven in the People's Republic of China.

A few years ago, a group of youths with sympathies for the Palestinian cause started an organisation called The Last Keffiyeh to promote the survival of the Hirbawis' factory by advertising on Facebook.

Shi estimates that 30 to 50 companies in China are producing keffiyeh for export to the Middle East and Palestine's supporters worldwide. He said competition had driven down prices over the years since other Chinese keffiyeh factories began popping up in the past decade.

But he's not worried that China will lose dominance over the Middle Eastern keffiyeh market any time soon.

'I am cheaper than anyone, because China is the cheapest for production,' he said.

Hirbawi sells each keffiyeh for about 200 Israeli shekels (HK$429) and makes a 15 to 20 per cent profit. Shi sells his most expensive and best-selling keffiyeh for 40 yuan each (HK$47), making a 5 per cent profit.

'Like much of Chinese production, we depend on the quantity of purchases,' Shi said. 'If we don't sell very many, we don't make anything.'

He says that merchants sell his keffiyeh for about 300 yuan in the Middle East, making a killing at nearly eight times the cost while undercutting Hirbawi's homespuns.

'The Chinese government should send their keffiyeh to anywhere but Palestine,' Hirbawi said. 'They are not helping us at all, these Chinese people.'

Beijing was among the first to acknowledge and accept representatives from the Palestinian government after the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948.

Now, Hirbawi feels that, by capitalising on the symbol of Palestinian struggle, China has hurt the livelihoods of his uncle, father-in-law and factory founder Yasser Hirbawi, who has three grown children.

'Their lives depend on this factory,' Talal Hirbawi said. 'This is their food. If it doesn't work out, there is no food for them.'

He adds that the factory also needs government help: 'The Palestinian government needs to put a higher customs duty on the imported keffiyeh.'

The Palestinian embassy in Beijing says laissez faire is the phrase du jour.

'This is business, and you know Chinese now make copies of everything, not just keffiyeh,' minister counsellor Dr Zakaria M.A. Abudabbouseh said.

He said those who wanted to distinguish the Palestinian keffiyeh from the Chinese had a sure-fire way.

'The material is not 100 per cent cotton,' he said, explaining that even the best Chinese keffiyeh were often polyblends.

Arafat traditionally wore his keffiyeh with a point crowning his head, representing Acca in the north of the country, and another crease pointing downward above his forehead, representing Gaza in the south. Abudabbouseh says that any material less crisp than the original Palestinian keffiyeh won't withstand this test.

He said the issue of quality was a problem with China's exports to developing nations.

'China exports good stuff to the US and countries like the US, not like Mali or Senegal. The bad-quality things go to the lower-end market,' Abudabbouseh said.

Shi agreed that part of his business model of selling cheap goods to a predominantly Middle Eastern market was about the demand for low-cost items.

'The demand for very expensive goods in Arab countries is not very high. So, we can meet their needs.'