Chinese factories are returning, but global supply chain remains uncertain

Scott Tong Apr 28, 2020
Workers in face masks at a car seat factory in Shanghai. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese factories are returning, but global supply chain remains uncertain

Scott Tong Apr 28, 2020
Workers in face masks at a car seat factory in Shanghai. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

At the startup Wire, which sells and leases electric scooters, the next-generation model is almost ready to ship out from the factory in China. Almost.

“We have like 90% of the components available to us, but there are just a couple of pieces that we can’t get,” said co-founder Nick Drombosky. “All it takes is one missing part to not have a finished product.”

In the manufacturing world, you need everything to make anything. In March 2011, the deadly tsunami that struck eastern Japan took out the one plant in the world that made one ingredient for auto paint. This held up the industry for months.

Drombosky doesn’t actually know when his parts will come in.

“At the end of March, we got emails from pretty much everyone we’ve ever done business with in China,” he said. “It was like a copied-and-pasted message saying, ‘Everything’s great here. The Chinese government’s done an amazing job handling this epidemic, and our factory is fully reopened.’ And then you would email them back saying, ‘OK, can I get this?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, not yet.’ “

“It was like a copied-and-pasted message saying, ‘Everything’s great here … our factory is fully reopened.’ “

Nick Drombosky, Wire co-founder

One limitation may be factory workers, who are overwhelmingly migrant workers from rural China. Some are struggling to return to the plants.

“Either because of transportation disruptions, or in many cases they couldn’t find a place to live,” said Dexter Roberts, journalist and author of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World. “The locals there see them as outsiders and are worried about the virus, and didn’t want them to come back.”

Cranking up the global manufacturing machine is not just about China. A typical car assembled in China contains some 30,000 parts coming in from multiple countries, many still facing the peak of the pandemic.

“If these different countries are in different stages of the disease, have different policies about lockdown, I think these reopenings are not going to be smooth,” said Susan Helper, economist and supply chain scholar at Case Western Reserve University.

Still, many analysts think things could have turned out far worse. Many businesses carried just enough spare inventory. Middlemen put goods on planes instead of ships to speed them to market. And demand for Chinese products fell off when the rest of the world suffered from COVID-19.

Also auspicious: Chinese factories went down for just three weeks or so.

“Had the delay been months as opposed to weeks, I think the impact would have been more acute.”

Shawn DuBravac, IPC economist

“Had the delay been months as opposed to weeks, I think the impact would have been more acute,” said economist Shawn DuBravac of the electronics manufacturing trade group IPC.

DuBravac said every time there’s a manufacturing disruption — from a virus, a natural disaster or a trade war — supply chain professionals learn new lessons. One solution widely discussed is to bring some manufacturing closer to home in key industries like medical supplies.

For now, however, China remains a critical manufacturing hub, given its skilled workforce, experience with foreign investors and world-class highways and ports. Just about every sector has exposure to the world’s second-largest economy.

“If you think you’re immune, you’re operating under a delusion,” said Thomas Derry, CEO of the Institute for Supply Management. “Everyone is exposed. Even if you think you’re not directly impacted, you’re indirectly impacted.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

Read More


As a nonprofit news organization, our future depends on listeners like you who believe in the power of public service journalism.

Your investment in Marketplace helps us remain paywall-free and ensures everyone has access to trustworthy, unbiased news and information, regardless of their ability to pay.

Donate today — in any amount — to become a Marketplace Investor. Now more than ever, your commitment makes a difference.