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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 September 2005, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
The rapid rise of China's sock town

By Quentin Sommerville
BBC Shanghai correspondent in Yiwu in eastern China

Like most 19-year-olds, Fu Man Nian is not terribly interested in global trade disputes.

She goes to work at the Fenli underwear factory, collects her wage, spends a bit on clothes and sends the rest home to her mum and dad back in Hunan province.

Seamstress Fu Man Nian
Seamstress Fu Man Nian earns more than her friends at home

And although she may not know it, Man Nian is in a very small way responsible for the continuing trade war between the United States and China.

Man Nian spends her day making tights, or pantyhose, for the American drugstore Wallgreens.

The pack says they cost $1.60 for half a dozen. The Fenli factory pays Man Nian around $1,000 a year.

There are few cheaper manufacturers in the world.

Last year this factory in Yiwu, eastern China, produced over three billion pairs of socks for Wal-Mart, Pringle and Disney. It is perhaps no surprise that Yiwu is known as sock town.

American manufacturers say that Yiwu, along with China's bra, button and underwear towns, has flooded their market, leading to factory closures and the loss of 30,000 jobs this year alone.

The harsh truth is that these Chinese boom-towns give customers the goods they want, at ever lower prices.

But they have not only made life better for western shoppers, they have also transformed the fortunes of millions of Chinese workers.

Global markets

Fu Man Nian is 20 hours from home, but here she earns double what she would back in rural Hunan.

It is a journey made by millions of Chinese migrants every year.

"I worked in a thread factory in Hunan, the work is much better paid here," she says.

"When I get my salary, I buy some clothes and post some money home. My family need it, because my parents are farmers."

Factory manager Song Xiao Guang
Factory manager Song Xiao Guang is proud to export socks

She lives in a dormitory next to the spinning rooms. As well as a better wage, the factory pays her health insurance, a growing burden for China's rural poor.

Many of her friends back in Hunan are keen to make the move too.

Her boss is Song Xiao Guang. He is proud that Fenli has come so far in only 17 years.

"Most of the socks we produce here have foreign brand names pasted over them," he says.

"We have an agreement with Wal-Mart in the US. We produce whatever they need, we process it, and they sell it on the international market.

"In fact, about 98% of our products go abroad."

His pride is shared across town.

Cheap labour

This city's miracle transformation may not be to western tastes. The modern Yiwu is a brash, gaudy and ugly place.

The Century Shopping Centre is a perfect example. Selling the best Yiwu has to offer, it is carved into one of the city's main parks.

It may not be pretty, but it has plenty of foreign visitors. Susan Ali has come from the United Arab Emirates looking for supplies for her clothing and export business.

"We come here because it's the factory of all China," she says. "They've got good quality, great variety and they're cheaper than any other country."

Majid Javed is another visitor. He runs an office in New York, and is opening one in Yiwu.

I come here for the price," he says.

Sock seller
Most socks made in China are sold abroad

"You can't beat it: You can't beat it anywhere. The labour costs are great and the people work [hard]."

Above the mall, older residents still remember the time before Yiwu became sock town.

"As the city expanded, land became more and more limited," says 71-year-old Fu Shan Jin.

"Some houses were knocked down, without proper approval, and farmers lost their land so that factories could be built. In fact this used to be farm land, but now it's a shopping mall."

But he has little nostalgia for the village that disappeared.

"Life's a lot better now, people's basic needs are being met. We've got enough to eat, and we can afford to clothe ourselves properly."

Yiwu and many other Chinese cities may be viewed by the West as a threat.

And their rapid industrialisation has taken its toll on the environment and the surrounding rural communities.

But for those who live here, these towns have proved to be an escape route from poverty.


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