- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

YIWU, China Increasingly around the world, Christmas is "Made in China."
Proof of this trend can be found in a section of the gargantuan Futian Market, home to dozens of shops unimaginable in China 20 years ago. They are stuffed with Christmas lights, artificial trees, ornaments, tinsel, plastic angels, plastic wreaths, plastic bells, Santa suits, inflatable Santas, cardboard-cutout Santas, Santas on a stick and just about any other yuletide paraphernalia anyone could want.
China is ruled by the officially atheist Communist Party. But the country exported $939 million in Christmas-related goods in the first 10 months of this year, more than half of it going to the United States, according to China's customs office. That doesn't include the $6 billion worth of toys it exports annually.
China is the leading source of artificial Christmas trees, ornaments and Christmas lights for the United States. A growing proportion of those items are made in Yiwu, a small city near China's east coast that boasts the country's largest small-commodities wholesale market.
"The Christmas market in Yiwu has been growing rapidly every year," said Li Genjun, deputy manager of Yiwu Spaceflight Craftwork Co., one of the city's largest makers of Christmas articles. "We barely have time to fill all the sales orders."
His company's revenue topped $1.2 million last year and will more than double this year, he said.
While Washington regularly condemns Beijing for its human rights record and lack of religious freedom, economic ties between the two powers dominate the relationship.
That pragmatism is on display in Yiwu's markets, where merchants do not let ideological constraints get in the way of commerce. Framed pictures of Jesus and Bible scenes hang next to Islamic emblems. Even the Dalai Lama, banned in Tibet, is for sale.
A portrait of Tibetan Buddhism's highest leader was displayed in one shop alongside a picture of a Hindu god and Santa Claus.
Yiwu's Futian Market is a primary source of the world's knickknacks.
The four-story, 3.7-million-square-foot mall a tad smaller than the 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America in Minnesota, America's largest retail shopping place has an entire floor devoted to hair ornaments and costume jewelry.
Another floor offers only toys, and the rest has "arts and crafts," including picture frames, candles, glassware, chirping bird cages and lava lamps.
However, Futian Market is not a mall for ordinary shoppers. It sells only to merchants and middlemen, who often buy by the containerload.
While the Mall of America has fewer than 600 stores, the Futian Market has more than 9,000 vendors occupying 7,000 shops.
Each shop is really just a booth of about 100 square feet for product samples.
The Futian Market was built because the city's original wholesale market, which sells just about every household item imaginable, was bursting out of its walls.
Yiwu, a city of 360,000 has no obvious advantages for becoming the leading center of light industry. Situated about 160 miles southwest of Shanghai, it has no port or river. The highway to Hangzhou, the nearest big city, 60 miles to the north, is just being completed this month.
Yet 3,000 foreign merchants, half of them from the Middle East, live in Yiwu year-round. Thousands more travel here every year on buying trips.
Like many places in China, it has abundant cheap labor. Two-thirds of the 316,000 farmers in the surrounding countryside have left the land to become part of Yiwu's export machine. An additional 400,000 migrant workers have come from other provinces.
To be sure, the scale of operations in Yiwu is still small compared with factories in Guangdong province, just north of Hong Kong. Many consumer items, including Christmas products, still come from southern China.
Yet Yiwu has seen a big increase in the number of companies specializing in Christmas items.
Many have their own Web sites, and some are starting to branch out into other holidays, such as Halloween.
Competition at the wholesale market is stiff. A 6-foot-high tree is priced at less than $4. A package of six sparkling ornaments costs about 25 cents to make and sells for 36 cents.
On a recent visit to the factory of Shuitou Co., another large maker of Christmas decorations in Yiwu, work was at a near standstill. The Christmas rush comes during the summer months, and by this time of year most factory workers have left for other jobs. A few women were seated at machines that spun thread around balls to make ornaments, their hands flying as they popped one ball off and pushed another one on.
The vast majority of Yiwu's yuletide products are shipped overseas. But more and more, Christmas products are not just for export. Each year, holiday decorations in China's big cities seem to spread.
Beijing looks like it has been decorated by a kindergarten teacher. Colorful strings of lights adorn trees throughout the city, adding to the year-round Christmas lights of many restaurants. Holiday placards have gone up over doorways. Shops have painted Christmas trees and Santas on their windows.

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