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China floods French market with anti-Covid products after causing global shortage


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Anti-Covid masks are ubiquitous in French supermarkets. Like self-tests, thermometers and hand gels, they are mainly produced in China. RFI looks back at how Beijing turned the global pandemic to its advantage.

Almost all supermarkets in the Paris region carry shelves of Covid-19 related goods made in China.

“They sell out as soon as they arrive,” says one salesperson.

A box of black disposable surgical masks is on sale in a Parisian supermarket for less than 4 euros. The masks are made by Xiantao Zhuobo Industrial, based in Hubei province, the capital Wuhan, the city where the virus first surfaced.

According to the Chinese enterprise search site Kanzhun.com, Zhuobo Industrial was a company with only two employees, specializing in “decoration design, construction, building materials production, processing, sales, vegetables, fruits and crop planting”.

But after Covid swept the world, the business was quick to adapt. Today’s Chinese Enterprise Tracking Site Exporthub.cn said Zhuobo Industrial “mainly produces disposable products, including medical protective clothing, medical masks, medical isolation gowns, shoes and hats,” with ISO quality marks.

Booming market

Another box with 10 FFP2 folding protective masks is made by Zhejiang xieli Science and Technology Co. Ltd, which was originally a home decor and stationery company. His website shows stickers, notebooks, greeting cards and gift books.

“Certificate of Quality” for face masks, manufactured by Zhuobo Industrial in Xiantao City, Hubei Province, China. © RFI/Jan van der Made

Previously, most of China’s major face mask producers were foreign companies operating in joint ventures with local partners. The top five were 3M (US,) Cleancool (China,) Honeywell (WE,) Uvex (Germany) and Kowa (Japan.)

But when, after the Covid-19 outbreak, domestic demand for face masks soared, domestic producers quickly started making them.

Looting of masks abroad

During the first months of the pandemic, from January to March 2020, authorities in Beijing desperately sought to obtain as many masks from abroad as possible, contributing to severe shortages around the world.

According to a Press release of the truck manufacturer Build Your Dream (BYD) in March 2020, the foreign branches of the company (which is represented in the United States, Europe and Africa) “coordinated foreign resources to purchase N95 masks and other epidemic prevention materials … and have successively donated to medical personnel who are fighting on the front line against the epidemic.”

“On February 13 (2020), BYD donated its first batch of overseas-purchased medical supplies to five major hospitals in Shenzhen.” The photo is a screenshot from truck maker BYD’s website, taken at the start of the pandemic, when China was importing face masks and other medical supplies from overseas, contributing to the scarcity of masks in the country where the Covid-19 virus was increasingly aggressive. © Screenshot from BYD website

And Bloomberg suggested that Chinese state-owned companies were systematically indulging in the massive purchase of masks from abroad, reports this oil explorer petrochina, one of China’s largest companies, “asked employees from 20 countries to buy face masks and send them home to help fight the virus.”

But then things changed. A study by the medical site VCbeat.top published in the early stages of the pandemic, shows that already in February 2020, non-specialist companies turned to the production of masks.

BYD announced that it was launching its own mass production effort, while SAIC-GM-Wuling, an automotive joint venture between General Motors and Chinese partners and iPhone producer foxcon has also embarked on the production of face masks on the sidelines.

turn the tide

On May 11, 2020, state television CGTN reported that oil producer Sinopec was building the “world’s largest mask material production base” while other companies like the cellphone maker Changing precision, diaper manufacturer baby daddy, Robot Tuoye jumped on the bandwagon and others started production overseas, such as the smartphone maker Oppo which had its Indian outlet producing masks for its local staff.

Eventually, China swept the initial shortages under the table and its mighty propaganda machine began to highlight examples of how planes full of face masks, respirators and other Covid-19 related gear have reached the countries where the pandemic was raging.

China’s propaganda machine showed the triumphant arrival of pallets full of face masks received by happy crowds in countries from Serbia to Rwanda.

But not everyone was enthusiastic.

The Dutch government had to recall 600,000 FFP2 masks after they were tested and appeared to fail to meet hygiene standards.

Australian Border Patrol confiscated 800,000 ‘counterfeit or otherwise faulty’ face masks according to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Spain and Turkey also had to send back large shipments. China dismissed the complaints, saying they were “politically motivated.”

“Geopolitical component”

EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell commented on his blog saying there was a “geopolitical component” to the Covid-19 crisis, including a “struggle for influence through the ‘politics of generosity'”.

But where are the local manufacturers?

French companies have belatedly started to respond to the growing demand for face masks and other Covid-related medical equipment, and have tried to counter the flooding from China.

Manufacturer of diagnostic tools NG Biotech in Brittany finally ramped up its self-test production and massively increased its workforce when the Omicron variant hit France in December 2021. The French Mask, a company based in the Paris region, has stepped up production of face masks.

The problem is that the cheapest locally produced box of 50 masks is 19.90 euros. They can cost up to 29.90.

How long will people, who have to change face masks several times a day, be willing to pay for a local product when the alternative made in China sells for a quarter of the price?

Face masks in a French supermarket.  Will local manufacturers be able to compete?
Face masks in a French supermarket. Will local manufacturers be able to compete? © RFI/Jan van der Made