The world’s workshop helps its own

Scott Tong May 27, 2008

The world’s workshop helps its own

Scott Tong May 27, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: Hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors in southwest China have something new to worry about. Emergency workers are scrambling to move them out of the path of what could be a devastating flood — 34 billion gallons of river water have risen behind landslides after the quake that hit two weeks ago. The government’s hoping to have everyone moved by the end of the day.

Overall, the death toll has topped 67,000 people. By one official estimate, 11 million people have been left homeless, so Beijing has been asking for tents as well as more conventional relief supplies like food and water and on the homefront, China Incorporated has kicked its tentmaking industry into overdrive as our China bureau chief Scott Tong reports.

Scott Tong: The town of Beichuan near the quake epicenter lost 9,000 people. Some of the survivors subsist at this refugee camp. Right now, they’re lining up for blankets.

Each tent sleeps six to 10 people and they’ll be living here a while — at least through the hot summer and long winter.

The problem is tent supply: Imagine sheltering the populations of New York City and Chicago combined.

Peter Goff coordinates foreign aid groups in Sichuan desperately seeking tents for the most remote areas.

Peter Goff: We’re just trying to get into those kinds of places and establish sort of tent villages, tent hospitals, tent schools and so on, just to get people under some kind of cover.

That’s where factories like this come in, a thousand miles to the east. The Shanghai company Yangfan normally makes tents and sleeping bags for brand-name camping companies like Eureka! in the United States and Vango in Britain. Right now, though, Yangfan is in the business of disaster relief.

That’s plant manager Chen Juxiang:

Chen Juxiang: The day after the quake, government officials called us and asked us to send everything we had, so we worked until 2 in the morning to airlift more than a thousand tents. Later, they sent us a fax asking us “How many more can you make by June 20?”

The answer: 70,000 tents.

Yangfan put its U.S. and European clients on hold and it shifted hundreds of workers from other product lines over to tentmaking. Once the fabric comes next week, the plant plans to run from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

To motivate its workers, giant wall banners state “We work overtime so the earthquake survivors can return to their lives.” Yangfan also offers employees financial incentives. The more you make, the more you make, says sewing machine operator Wang Wei:

Wang Wei: We have assembly line races. Whoever makes the most wins prizes. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s appliances, like washers and dryers and microwave ovens.

Providing housing to earthquake survivors is relief priority number one in China. Almost every day, state media shows President Hu Jintao visiting a tent factory, cheering workers on.

Here at Yangfan, 22 workers make up one assembly line. Some cut, some stitch, some adhere waterproofing tape to tent seams and every two and a half hours, each worker provides the labor equivalent of one tent.

The work is repetitive and monotonous, which may be why half the employees have earphones on, listening to tunes like this. Almost everyone here is a rural migrant, making around a buck an hour.

By the way, each tent bound for Sichuan sells for $193. It sounds pricey, but these are heavy-duty shelters, says Richard Brubaker, a logistics coordinator. He also runs a charity doing earthquake relief.

Richard Brubaker: We’re not talking about your weekend away at Tahoe kind of tent. We’re talking about your military tent that you would see in military conflict zones and relief zones. These are large, kind of MASH hospital tents.

Outside the plant, forklifts and trucks are ready to roll and a cargo train bound for Sichuan is also on standby.

Logistics man Richard Brubaker marvels at China’s instant mobilization of industry and infrastructure.

Brubaker: They moved so many people and so much assets right away. They commandeered every airplane to make this happen. It’s something to kind of stand back and admire, kind of be in awe of, how fast they were able to go from zero to 60.

It’s the benefit of an economy that still retains its central planning roots — in this case, cranking up the world’s workshop for disaster relief.

In Shanghai, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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