In this photo taken Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, cubicles are set up to separate workers during meal time in their canteen at a factory in Yantai city in eastern China’s Shandong province.
The Associated Press
In the heart of Chinas manufacturing colossus, in a city synonymous with the countrys status as the worlds factory, a sprawling network of factories remained quiet Tuesday, as virus fears, wide-reaching lockdown measures and official reluctance kept workers far from production lines.
Chinas central government in Beijing ordered China back to work this week, as the countrys leadership sought to ease the economic blow of strict measures taken to constrain the spread of Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia, or NCP, which began to infect people in the city of Wuhan and has now killed 1,017 people in China.
On Tuesday, Chinas Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said its top priority is to promote the resumption of production. Chinas president Xi Jinping himself has warned top Party leadership that measures taken against the virus were doing economic harm, Reuters reported.
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But in the Tianxin No. 1 Manufacturing District, a cluster of factories in the Guangdong city of Dongguan, there were no signs of life Tuesday. The Globe and Mail called 32 manufacturing companies in the district. Four said they were closed. Phones rang unanswered at the remainder.
I dont know anyone that is open, said Meng Xin, who works at the Taixin Rubber and Plastics Production Factory, which makes plastic and metallic bubble bags.
The biggest difficulty is workers. Workers cant come back at all, Mr. Meng said. Those in rural areas struggled to find cars or trains. In hardest-hit Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital, roads, rail and air travel remain shut down.
But in cities and villages across China, the imposition of local epidemic measures has placed people in states of medical house arrest, with households permitted to send out a single person to buy necessities once every two or three days. A mish-mash of different local policies added another complication, since travellers able to move in one place risked being stopped elsewhere.
Chinas best-respected epidemiologist, Zhong Nanshan, on Tuesday told state media and foreign journalists that the country has not yet reached the apex of the viral outbreak, which could come as soon as this week, or perhaps nearer the end of the month. The number of new daily confirmed cases, however, has now trended downward for several days.
Chinas state-run Xinhua news agency said millions had returned to work Monday. It showed employees entering a Lenovo office building, and footage of a communications-equipment factory operating in Shenzhen. An employee at another factory in Anhui province said people were working overtime to make up for co-workers unable to return. Eighty per cent of software and IT businesses are back at work in some form, state media reported, but more than two-thirds of employees are working from home.
Manufacturers, however, dont have the luxury of remote work, and a slow resumption to production extended across China. Take Magna International, the auto parts manufacturer. Several of our plants resumed work on Monday, said Tracy Fuerst, the companys Michigan-based vice-president of corporate communications. But no one answered the phone at eight of the companys China plants on Tuesday, including in Shanghai, Chongqing, Changshu, Changzhou, Kunshan and Suzhou.
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Digital migration trends tracked by Baidu, Chinas lead Internet search engine, showed that since Jan. 23, post-Lunar New Year travel across China is at least two-thirds below what it was last year. The country has not seen the huge spike in travel that would otherwise signal a mass return to work.
The spread of the virus to every region of China has provoked a state of near-panic. Authorities in some of the countrys most vital economic areas have been loath to allow people back on the job, out of fear that travel and workplace proximity will create new viral outbreaks.
In Foshan, the Guangzhou district ordered companies not to restart until March 1, threatening those that disobey with severe punishment if their actions undermine epidemic prevention efforts.
In Dongguan, authorities issued 20 measures governing the resumption of work. They include requirements for workplace sanitation; travel background checks for returning employees; strict employee health monitoring; staggered starts; and 14-day mandatory isolation for those who have been in areas most affected by the virus.
Given the seriousness of the situation, we dont dare let workers return now and gather together at work. That’s a risk we cant afford, said Wang Lin, at Weicheng Hardware Electronics Factory, which does electronic assembly and wire-electrode cutting.
Even those eager to reopen cannot. Local government inspectors must first authorize health measures at factories before they can resume work. Those inspections have yet to take place, said factory representatives who spoke with The Globe, and authorities have given no indication of an expected timeline.
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China has ordered banks to lend money to some companies at favourable rates, and injected more than $300-billion in additional liquidity to combat financial damage from the virus, as foreign analysts predict a painful blow to the countrys GDP. The outbreak has completely changed the dynamics of the Chinese economy, analysts at JPMorgan wrote. Some companies have already begun laying off workers.
The economic losses are huge. Ive lost large numbers of orders, said Li Yongyan, at Baiqiang Mold Factory in Dongguan, which makes computer keyboard components.
He predicted that the bankruptcy rate will hit 10 to 15 per cent, he said.
I already know two companies that will halt business soon, just because of the effects of the epidemic. The whole industry has suffered from last years trade war. Now, the virus is just adding to our challenges, and our pain.
– with a report from Eric Atkins
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