The Yiwu International Trade Market has always been renowned as a window into the vitality of Chinese manufacturing, crammed with stalls showcasing everything from flashlights to machine parts. But today, as the coronavirus pandemic rips through the global economy , it offers a strikingly different picture – the dismal effect Covid-19 is having on the nation’s exports. The usually bustling wholesale market, home to some 70,000 vendors supplying 1,700 different types of manufactured goods, is a shadow of its former self. Only a handful of foreign buyers traipse through aisles of the sprawling 4-million-square-metre (43 million square feet) complex, while store owners – with no customers to tend to – sit hunched over their phones or talking in small groups. “We try to convince ourselves that the deep slump will not last long,” said the owner of Wetell Razor, Tong Ciying, at her empty store. “We cannot let complacency creep in, although the coronavirus has sharply hampered exports of Chinese products.” Chinese exports plunged by 17.2 per cent in January and February combined compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the General Administration of Customs. The figure was a sharp drop from 7.9 per cent growth in December. After riding out a supply shock that shut down most of its factories, China is now facing a second wave demand shock , as overseas export orders vanish amid sweeping containment measures to contain the outbreak around the globe. Nowhere is that clearer to see than in Yiwu. The city of 1.2 million, which lies in the prosperous coastal province of Zhejiang, was catapulted into the international limelight as a showroom for Chinese manufacturing when the country joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Before the pandemic, thousands of foreign buyers would flock to the mammoth trade market each day to source all manner of products before sending them home. But the outbreak, which has claimed the lives of more than 113,000 people and infected more than 1.9 million around the world, is proving a major test for the market and the health of the trade dependent city. Imports and exports via Yiwu last year were valued at 296.7 billion yuan (US$42.2 billion) – nearly double the city’s economic output. Businesses, however, are facing a very different picture in 2020. Most traders at the market say they have lost at least half their business amid the pandemic, which was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last year. “Yiwu is the barometer for China’s exports,” said Jiang Tianqing, the owner of Beauty Shine Industry, a manufacturer of hair brushes. “Just take a look at the situation in Yiwu and you will understand the extent of the virus’ effect on China’s trade with foreign countries.” We are aware of the fact that developed economies like the US and Europe have been severely affected Jiang Tianqing Jiang said his business was only just hanging on thanks to a handful of loyal customers placing orders via WeChat. “I assume it will be a drawn-out battle against the coronavirus,” he said. “We are aware of the fact that developed economies like the US and Europe have been severely affected.” The Yiwu market reopened on February 18 after a one-month long hiatus following the Lunar New Year holiday and the government’s order to halt commercial activities to contain the spread of the outbreak. But facing the threat of a spike in imported cases, Beijing banned foreigners from entering the country in late March – shutting out potential overseas buyers. Despite the lack of business, local authorities have urged stall owners to keep their spaces open to display Yiwu’s pro-business attitude, owners said. “For those bosses who just set up their shops here, it would be a do-or-die moment now since their revenue over the next few months will probably be zero,” said Tong. “I am lucky that my old customers are still making orders for my razors.” The impact of the coronavirus is just the latest challenge for local merchants, who normally pay 200,000 yuan (US$28,000) per year for a 10-square-metre (108 square feet) stall at the market. Traders were hard hit by the trade war between China and the United States when the Trump administration imposed a 25 per cent tariff on US$200 billion of Chinese imports last year. At the time, some Chinese companies agreed to slash their prices to help American buyers digest the additional costs. “But it is different this time,” said Jiang. “Pricing does not matter. Both buyers and sellers are eager to seal deals, but we are not able to overcome the barriers [to demand caused by the virus].” Even when businesses can secure orders, it is a struggle to deliver them . Ma Jun, a manager with a LED light bulb trading company, said the only export destination for her company’s products was war-torn Yemen because it was the only country with ports still open. It is a public health crisis that ravages not just our businesses, but the whole world economy Dong Xin Dong Xin, an entrepreneur selling stationery products, said he could not ship the few orders he had because “ocean carriers have stopped operations”. “It is a public health crisis that ravages not just our businesses, but the whole world economy,” he said. “The only thing can do is to pray for an early end to the pandemic.” Most wholesale traders in the Yiwu market run manufacturing businesses based outside the city, so a sharp fall in sales has a ripple effect on their factories, potentially resulting in massive job cuts. At Yiwu Port, an inland logistics hub full of warehouses where goods from the factories are unpacked and repacked for shipping abroad, container truck drivers joke about their job prospects. “We used to commute between Shaoxing and here five times a week, and now it is down to twice a week,” said a driver surnamed Wang, describing the trip from his home to the shipping port, just over 100km away. “At the end of the day, we may not be infected with the coronavirus, but our jobs will still be part of the cost of the fight against it.” Sign up now and get a 10% discount (original price US$400) off the China AI Report 2020 by SCMP Research. Learn about the AI ambitions of Alibaba, Baidu & JD.com through our in-depth case studies, and explore new applications of AI across industries. The report also includes exclusive access to webinars to interact with C-level executives from leading China AI companies (via live Q&A sessions). Offer valid until 31 May 2020.