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Currency pressures cool China’s Christmas

YIWU, China — Christmas these days comes mostly “Made in China.” But the producers of all those plastic Santas, artificial trees and brightly painted bulbs are fretting this holiday season over falling profits — and worried that next year could bring even worse tidings.

The concern, they say, is the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Chinese currency, the renminbi, commonly called the yuan. Since mid-June, when China, in response to U.S. and international pressure, announced it would allow its currency to float within a narrow band, the renminbi has appreciated roughly 2.5 percent in value against the dollar.

That amount is far too little, say many American critics, including economists and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress who are pushing for a far greater appreciation — somewhere between 25 percent and 40 percent — and who want to use the threat of U.S. trade sanctions to get the Chinese government’s attention.

The small-scale manufacturers and wholesalers who bring Christmas to U.S. department stores and shopping malls say the currency has shifted too much. Their concerns are at the heart of Beijing’s reluctance to take more dramatic action.

“If the renminbi keeps appreciating, our prices have no more room to drop,” said Cai Qin Liang, 38, who has been in the business of making Christmas ornaments and handicrafts for more than a decade. “We can just stop making these Christmas accessories, but foreigners still celebrate the Christmas holiday and need these things.”

It is small manufacturers such as these that the Chinese government says it is worried about as it resists calls for a larger and more rapid appreciation of the currency. Officials in Beijing have said consistently that any reform of the yuan must be gradual to avoid widespread disruption — meaning they fear small-scale producers might be put out of business.

These manufacturers have a powerful ally in the Ministry of Commerce, which represents their interests inside the central government. It has constantly and publicly taken a harder line in arguing that the value of the renminbi is just right, as opposed to the Central Bank, which has pushed for an appreciation.

To help make their case in the United States, Chinese leaders and economists have warned that consumers could suffer if Chinese manufacturing plants are forced out of business.

Cai, vice chair of the local Christmas-accessories merchants association, agreed. “The renminbi appreciation is a double-edged sword,” he said. “It won’t just affect the Chinese manufacturers. It will also affect the customers, more importantly. They’ll have to pay more for the same stuff.”

In the United States, the debate is over whether China manipulates its currency, buying dollars to keep the yuan artificially low and the volume of Chinese exports high — in the process increasing its trade imbalance with the United States and making it harder for America to pull out of recession.

Here in Yiwu, a thriving trade city of about 2 million people in Zhejiang province near China’s east coast, the view looks far different. Unlike Guangdong province in the south, which has largely shifted to producing higher-end, higher-tech products, such as cell phones, laptops and iPads, Yiwu has emerged as the center of China’s small-scale, low-end manufacturing: socks, zippers, batteries, plastic baby toys, inflatable swimming pools.

One section of the city, spread over several square blocks, is known as “Christmas Village,” stacked with some 260 look-alike shops offering all the accoutrements of modern-day American Christmas: the plastic snowmen and reindeer for the front lawn, stockings for the chimneys and brightly painted ornaments for the trees. The red suit with white fur trim worn by most suburban mall Santas probably came from one of these shops in Yiwu.

Unlike with a laptop or an iPad, the profit margin on a Santa suit or a Christmas tree ornament is simply not that big.

“The price is not very high, so we make up for it in quantity,” said Gong Yue Quan, 41, whose company makes and sells small, do-it-yourself toy parts, such as tiny colored pompoms and pipe-cleaner stems. He said it now costs about 4.5 renminbi (about 68 cents) to make a bag of pompoms that might sell in the United States for as little as $5.

“It’s impossible to keep dropping the price,” Gong said.

October is normally the time of year when Christmas orders are shipped to their overseas destinations, and on a recent visit Yiwu was bustling with workers packing and stacking boxes. About 80 percent to 85 percent of these Christmas goods are for export, since Christmas is not widely recognized or celebrated in China, except for at the big-city hotels, restaurants and bars that cater to foreigners.

This is also the time when the manufacturers should begin taking orders for Christmas 2011. But there is an uncertainty, they said; without knowing what the exchange rate will be, they are hesitant to take any new orders.


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