China struggles to revive manufacturing amid virus outbreak

BEIJING (AP) – Factories that make the world’s smartphones, toys and other goods are struggling to reopen after a virus outbreak idled China’s economy. But even with the ruling Communist Party promising help, companies and economists said it may be months before production is back to normal.

The problem is supply chains — the thousands of companies that provide components, from auto parts to zippers to microchips. China’s are famously nimble and resourceful, but they lack raw materials and workers after the most intensive anti-disease measures ever imposed closed factories, cut off most access to cities with more than 60 million people and imposed travel curbs.

In smartphones, an industry that relies on China to assemble almost all its handsets, some components suppliers said production is as low as 10 per cent of normal levels, according to Nicole Peng of Canalys, a research firm.

“The bad news is that there will be further impact, and the impact is worse than a lot of people initially expected,” said Peng.

Travel and retail businesses that need Chinese customers have suffered the most so far from the partial shutdown of the second largest economy. But brands including Apple Inc said it is starting to disrupt their supplies. Analysts warn the longer that disruption lasts, the more damage will spread to wider industries and other economies.

Global brands have used low-cost Chinese labour to assemble goods for three decades. Now, they increasingly depend on China to supply auto, computer and other components. Disruptions can make this country a bottleneck, choking off their sales.

Workers make optical lenses in a factory in Dexing city in central China’s Jiangxi province. PHOTOS: AP
Workers assemble Audi A6 L cars at a workshop of FAW-Volkswagen Automobile Co, Ltd in Changchun, northeast China’s Jilin Province

The most optimistic forecasts call for bringing the virus under control by March, allowing manufacturing to rebound. Gloomier outlooks said the outbreak might last until mid-May or later. Or, as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned this week, authorities might fail to stop its global spread.

Automakers and other factories are reopening, but analysts said they won’t restore normal production until at least mid-March.

“If factory work does not spike in the coming weeks, a global parts shortage would likely emerge,” Taimur Baig and Samuel Tse of DBS said in a report.

There is no indication yet of an impact on consumers abroad, but retailers are starting to warn some products might be late or unavailable.

China also is a major supplier of chemicals for the global pharmaceutical industry. The outbreak has prompted concern supplies might be disrupted but there is no indication that drug production has been affected.

President Xi Jinping has put his personal authority behind reviving industry.

Beijing is promising tax cuts, though economists said financial help will have limited impact when anti-disease controls still in effect are still keeping workers away from factories and disrupting the movement of goods.

Last Sunday, Xi said “low-risk areas “should change disease-control measures to fully restore production while high-risk areas focus on fighting the epidemic, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Manufacturers face a shortage of workers after millions who visited their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday were stranded there by the suspension of plane, train and bus services.

Officials must “unblock transportation channels,” Xinhua cited Xi as saying. The government of Yiwu, a southeastern city known for its thousands of suppliers of buttons, doorknobs and other components to export manufacturers, said it arranged planes and trains to help their employees get back to work.

China accounts for about one-quarter of global manufacturing when measured by the value added in its factories. But it is the final assembly point for more than 80 per cent of the world’s smartphones, more than half of TVs and a big share of other consumer goods.

Apple, which has most of its iPhones and other products assembled by contractors in China, rattled stock markets when it warned on February 17 that revenue would suffer due to supply disruptions.

“We would certainly expect to see more news like that,” said Simon Weston of AXA Investment Managers in Hong Kong.

Other global companies that need Chinese plastics, chemicals, steel and high-tech components also “face reduced production”, according to Kaho Yu of Verisk Maplecroft, a consulting firm. Yu said that is likely to last through the quarter ending in September.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai said last week half of the 109 companies that responded to a survey reported their global operations already are affected. It said 78 per cent reported they lacked sufficient staff to run production lines.

Some companies including Ralph Lauren Corp already were moving out of China due to rising costs and United States (US) tariff hikes in a fight over Beijing’s technology ambitions and trade surplus. But many still depend on China for components or some stages of manufacturing.

Samsung is “feeling the heat” because it shifted smartphone assembly to Vietnam but needs experienced Chinese managers to run those factories, Peng said. She said they visited China for the Lunar New Year and are blocked from returning to their jobs.

Other companies including global automakers that rely increasingly on the Chinese market are restarting production but said the pace depends on whether they can get components.

China accounts for about one-quarter of global auto production and according to UBS provides eight per cent of global exports of auto components. Many use “just in time” manufacturing, delivering components when needed. Those factories have limited stockpiles to ride out disruptions.

Volkswagen, the country’s biggest-selling auto brand, said on Monday its challenges include “slow national supply chain and logistics ramp-up”.

In China, factory production in export-oriented coastal provinces is back above 70 per cent of normal levels, according to Cong Liang, the general secretary of the Cabinet’s planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission.