China's 'hardware capital' grinds to a halt amid coronavirus fears

Makeshift barricades and a migrant worker shortage have upended life and industry in Yongkang, one of China's biggest manufacturing hubs.

Yongkang is considered the “hardware capital of China.” Buried in the heart of the country’s eastern province of Zhejiang, the city’s ten thousand or so factories churn out products such as robot arms, automobile parts, and household appliances, spreading $4-billion worth of merchandise across the globe every year.

At least, that was life in Yongkang—whose name means “forever healthy”—before the novel coronavirus infected nearly 43,000 people in China.

Though three-quarters of those afflicted with the infectious disease live in Hubei Province, the outbreak and the transportation restrictions over the past three weeks have had a chilling effect on migrant labor across China—especially for manufacturing hubs like Yongkang. Moody’s Analytics, a financial risk management firm, predicts that the outbreak could shave one percent—about $141 billion—off China’s gross domestic product.

“Without money coming in, I don’t know how much longer we can last,” says Wang Weiwang, a 32-year-old manager of Yongkang Mali’ao Industry & Trade Limited, a small factory that manufactures electric kitchen wares, such as cookers and baking trays. While the city has only five confirmed cases, Zhejiang Province ranks third in the country with 1,117 infected by "SARS-CoV-2," the World Health Organization's new name for the novel coronavirus. (Find out what life is like inside the quarantined city of Wuhan.)

Wang’s factory should have resumed production a week ago, but the central government extended the Lunar New Year holiday in wake of the epidemic. Even with the holiday lifting on Monday, he still worries the plant won’t come back online any time soon because of their need for migrant laborers.

In this city of one million, nearly half are registered as migrant workers, many of whom travel more than a thousand miles from far-flung provinces such as Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou to work in Yongkang’s factories. China relies on 300 million laborers from rural regions nationwide, and 60 percent of them—174 million—are migrants, according to state media. That means China’s migrant workforce is roughly equal to half the total population of the United States.

Starting this week, factory managers can seek permission from the municipal government to reopen, “but the conditions are very stringent,” Wang says. People from outside the city must undergo compulsory quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, according to the Yongkang Daily. City officials require the factories to disinfect all workplaces and provide face masks to the workers. The staff would also be required to live in a concentrated location provided by their employer, eat together, and have their body temperatures monitored every day. (Find out how coronavirus compares to flu, Ebola, and other major outbreaks)

“We can’t afford to do something like that,” Wang says. Even if they could, “there is nobody around anyway.”

Peak of no return

The peak for returning workers—typically more than 100 million after the Lunar New Year holiday—should have been underway a week ago. But the coronavirus epidemic has stymied domestic travel, with buses, trains, and airplanes still severely restricted. (Find out how coronavirus spreads on a plane—and the safest place to sit)

“I thought it would be over soon,” says Roban Wang, a 31-year-old local photographer who is not related to Wang Weiwang. “I thought a sense of normality would eventually return.”

Since the beginning of February, Roban Wang has been documenting how Yongkang and surrounding villages, akin to numerous places across China, have stepped up their quarantine measures as the number of confirmed cases in nearby megacities, such as Hangzhou and Wenzhou, has risen fast.

“The viral fire is spreading around us,” says Roban Wang. February 1, he recalls, felt like the first cheerful day in weeks. It was unseasonably warm, bright and sunny, the sky a crystal clear blue. Spring was almost in the air, so he went for a stroll in a local park.

“There were quite a lot of people there. A small group even gathered to play cards,” Roban Wang says. “Some were not wearing masks.”

But city officials learned of these informal meetups and closed off the park the following day. The local government has since reiterated the importance of avoiding public gatherings until the epidemic comes to an end, Roban Wang says. “The battle is not over yet.”

The city is also blocking the entry of any passengers arriving in train stations without local hukou, a set of registration documents in mainland China that validate the location of a person’s household. Those outsiders are quanhui (“persuaded to return”). A makeshift hotel, built near the station after the outbreak commenced, allows stranded travellers to stay until the next train back home.

Vehicle commuters face blockades, with some being less official than others. The city has closed all but a limited number of highway exits, where only people with local identification are allowed through. Around the Yongkang metropolis, towns and villages set up hastily built barricades—from fences, bamboo sticks, to dirt dug up from roads—to prevent outsiders from entering.

The message across the city and countryside is clear: Don’t go anywhere, don’t come back just yet.

“This is a massive headache for me,” says Wang Weiwang. The factory must pay rent, bank loans, and workers’ salary and social security. Every day with the plant closed is another day of financial loss, both in China and abroad. Moody’s estimates, for example, that the outbreak could cost the United States about $93 billion in GDP due to reductions in business travel, tourism, and demand for American exports.

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Migrant workers with nowhere to go eat fast food near the high-speed train station in Yongkang on February 4. Their trains and buses home were cancelled. With the factories and construction sites all closed, the city has shelters to provide them with supplies and food.

While the situation keeps him awake at night, it’s better than it is for many of his business compatriots. His customers are mostly Chinese, but some people in his social circle work for factories that sell products mostly overseas.

“The penalties for delayed shipments are phenomenal,” Wang Weiwang says. “For them, financial loss is not their worst nightmare. It’s bankruptcy.”

Roban Wang, born and raised in Yongkang, is a contributing photographer for Contact Press Images