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As the Year of the Dragon dawns, many Chinese wish for a better economy

Jennifer Pak Feb 9, 2024
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A vendor in Shanghai sells plush toys for the Year of the Dragon. Charles Zhang/Marketplace

As the Year of the Dragon dawns, many Chinese wish for a better economy

Jennifer Pak Feb 9, 2024
Heard on:
A vendor in Shanghai sells plush toys for the Year of the Dragon. Charles Zhang/Marketplace
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Taxi driver Cao Changyu, 56, said ride-hailing apps have been undercutting his business for years. Today, he said, the competition is even worse.

“Driving taxis is hard work. It’s supercompetitive because China’s job market is a mess and a lot of people have been laid off,” he said.

The laid-off workers, according to Cao, have flooded into Shanghai to become drivers, competing directly with cabs like his.

“My wish [for the Lunar New Year]? To retire early,” Cao said.

In China, the past year has seen slower wage growth, declining exports and high unemployment. China’s government statistics show the Chinese economy grew 5.2% last year, which would be enviable in many Western countries, but it is the weakest performance outside of the pandemic since 1990. The Chinese economy has not fully recovered from the pandemic. It also faces uncertainty about the prospect of continued U.S.-China tensions and domestically, the ongoing property slump.

Cao grew up when China’s economy was planned, food supplies were limited and the Lunar New Year was the one time he could binge on food.

“I used to look forward to eating sweet dumplings, chicken and fish,” Cao said. “We could only buy those supplies in the 1980s and ’90s if we had money and ration coupons.”

New years' decoration seller Sun Zeyuan at her stall in Shanghai. Her wish is for her family to be safe and healthy. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
New years’ decoration seller Sun Zeyuan at her stall in Shanghai. Her wish is for her family to be safe and healthy. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

Today, China’s economy is more open and food restrictions are a thing of the past. Cao said he can mostly eat whatever he wants at any time.

Xu Xiaoxiao is shopping for Lunar New Year decorations at a small commodities market next to a Ming Dynasty garden called Yu Yuan. She said her family still prepares dishes full of auspicious meanings on the eve of the Lunar New Year on Friday.

Eating fish is a must, because the word for fish sounds similar to a Chinese word for surplus. I’ll also have a dish called rice with eight treasures. Plus, rice cakes,” she said. The Chinese word for rice cakes sounds the same as the phrase: “May you get promoted every year.”

Jewelry seller Kang Xiuhua is surrounded by stock that she said is difficult to sell. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Jewelry seller Kang Xiuhua is surrounded by stock that she said is difficult to sell. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

She works in investment and is bracing for a tough year ahead, but she remains optimistic.

“The economy is sluggish, but I think there are still opportunities for those willing to seek them out. I will focus on learning more about my field of work and trying harder to succeed,” Xu said.

Decorations shop owner Wang Meichun said his business has really picked up since the height of the pandemic.

“My wish is for my life and my business to get even better,” Wang said, adding that tourists have now returned to the area.

But just because more people are visiting the Yu Yuan, that doesn’t mean they’re buying much.

“Business isn’t as good as last year because overall, China’s economy isn’t strong,” another decorations seller at the small commodities market said. Sun Zeyuan added that she isn’t really sure how bad business is.

Toy seller Chen Yongman in front of toys that he said is becoming worthless with the fierce competition from online retailers. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Chen Yongman in front of toys that he said is becoming worthless with the fierce competition from online retailers. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

But nearby, decorations seller Li Guinan has kept tabs on the numbers.

“My business has dropped by more than 50% from pre-pandemic levels. [In] 2018, 2019, we could sell up to $3,000 worth of goods a day, but now, we’re talking just a few hundred dollars a day,” Li said.

Many of his corporate clients, including hotels, are struggling, so they’re buying less from him. Many individual consumers are buying stuff online.

Toy seller Chen Yongman said he just can’t compete with online retailers.

“Some clients ask me why I charge more than online shops. But I tell them that I’ve got to pay shop rent, storage fees and rent for my apartment,” he said.

New years' decorations seller Li Guinan looks at his cell phone while he waits for more customers. He said sales has dropped by more than half since before the pandemic. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
New years’ decorations seller Li Guinan looks at his cellphone while he waits for more customers. He says sales have dropped by more than half since before the pandemic. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

Chen’s business is located on the second floor of the small commodities market, and he points to the many empty stalls all around.

“There are lots of vacant shops on this floor and the third floor. In the past, this whole building from the basement to the sixth floor was full,” he said. “People moved out after China dropped its zero-COVID policy.”

His business has not recovered from the pandemic.

“[My revenues] have dropped by more than 50%,” Chen said.

One of the toys proving hard to sell is a plastic doll of former U.S. President Barack Obama with a pipe in his mouth and two fingers in the air in the shape of a V. Flick the switch at the back of his gray suit and he dances to the music. The toy used to go for $12. Chen tries to give the Obama toy to me. I pay for it anyway.

A few doors down, jewelry seller Kang Xiuhua said she has not sold a single item all day.

“My sales revenue is less than 10% of what it was before the pandemic,” she said.

Large sections of a small commodities market near Shanghai's Yu gardens are empty. Remaining vendors say many businesses have left since the pandemic. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Large sections of a small commodities market near Shanghai’s Yu gardens are empty. Remaining vendors say many businesses have left since the pandemic. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

She’s worked the whole year so she can take this coming week off and go on vacation with her children in southeastern China.

“I wish for my family to be healthy and safe. As for China, I hope the country will get better,” Kang said.

At Lunar New Year, many of the greetings and blessings revolve around having the very best of health and the very best of luck, but for this coming lunar year, many people here have more modest wishes.

“Every year, things seem to be getting worse in China. What I’m wishing for is for this year to be about the same as last year,” Cao said. “People will still celebrate the Lunar New Year as best they can.”

Additional research by Charles Zhang

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