Yiwu: The Creation of a Global Market Town in China

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Hundreds of thousands of wholesalers come to buy their goods in Yiwu (China), which is the largest wholesale market in the world and specializes in small commodities. The broad term ‘small commodities’ encompasses items such as jewelry, decorative items, household goods, stationery, and small electronics equipment. These objects, commonly known under the term ‘exotic knick-knacks’, are often similar across the globe. Yiwu is a city in Zhejiang Province, 280 km southwest of Shanghai. It is considered a key city linking “China’s varied local economies to regional and global markets” (Chen 2015), but it is far from the model of a global city. It has both an industrial district and urban marketplace, both with global reach. Among economic analysts, there is no doubt: the Silk Road has come back to life (Broadman 2007, Simpfendorfer 2009). It has even become a strong arm of Chinese foreign policy since 2013, when Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), launched the “One Belt, One Road” (pinyin: Yídài yílù) initiative. Since the mid-2000s, the various Silk Roads have increasingly converged on the city of Yiwu, whose motto reveals the goals of local decision-makers: “Build [the] World’s Largest Supermarket, Construct [an] International Shopping Paradise.”

2This article adopts the metaphor of the Silk Road to highlight the networks that connect transnational marketplaces. In particular, we focus on the Chinese market city of Yiwu, where importers from around the world come to buy goods, seen as a space for production, storage and re-export, and Dubai in North Africa, close to consumer markets. By travelling these ‘new Silk Roads’ we seek to better understand how marketplaces have been created in Algeria with international connections, such as El Eulma and Ain Fakroun (Belguidoum and Pliez 2012). In Egypt, this article examines how transnational entrepreneurs decide between different supply chains, which provide the largest consumer market in this region of nearly 85 million inhabitants with goods from China via the Persian Gulf or Libya. Throughout North Africa, the role and the influence of Yiwu has grown to such an extent that the city has become the main destination for North African importers. These transnational wholesalers, who are key players in the new urban commercial boom, have gradually travelled the roads from the Mediterranean to the Far East and set up effective and discrete supply networks by building on the advantages of each of the areas they visit.

3This paper has two main objectives. First, it studies changes in Yiwu, in particular in Exotic Street, seen as a nexus for trade with Arab and/or Muslim countries and as a privileged observatory for the local creation of a transnational marketplace. Second, based on surveys of Algerian and Egyptian traders, this study seeks to better understand their individual trajectories, profiles and forms of organizing long-distance trade. Thus, beyond mere observation in situ, this field study has led to new questions about these entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, translators, buyers and migrants, their adaptation to Chinese society, and whether their presence in China will be a lasting one. These Silk Roads between China, Africa and the Arab World are constantly being reorganized and given new meanings by the actors who travel them and the communities in which these roads materialize.

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