Chinese 'Button Town' Struggles with Success

Buttons i i

Wang Chunqiao's button factories produce millions of buttons every year. The small town of Qiaotou has cornered the world's button market, bulldozing established markets like Italy. Louisa Lim, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim, NPR
Buttons

Wang Chunqiao's button factories produce millions of buttons every year. The small town of Qiaotou has cornered the world's button market, bulldozing established markets like Italy.

Louisa Lim, NPR

China's Manufacturing Boom

Manufacturing's Economic Role: Accounts for 36.8 percent of China's GDP (2004)

 

Manufacturing Growth: an average 10.3 percent annually (2001-2005)

 

Biggest Manufacturer: Some experts estimate there are about 109 million manufacturing workers — 30 million to 56 million more than in the major Western industrialized nations combined.

 

Labor Growth: Migrant laborers total 200 million to 250 million and are expected to reach 300 million by 2010. About one-third of laborers are women between 17 and 25 years old.

 

Labor Shift: 45 million migrant laborers are projected to leave the agricultural sector in the next five years.

 

Long Hours: Migrant workers were on the job 11 hours a day and more than 26 days a month. (2004 survey)

 

Earnings: Most factory workers earn between $62 and $130 per month for the more skilled in prosperous, eastern areas of China.

 

Sources: China Statistical Yearbook, People's Daily, Xinhua, Monthly Labor Review, National Statistics Bureau

Wang Chunqiao, sitting behind his desk. i i

"Buttons are my destiny," says button millionaire Wang Chunqiao. They've been responsible for his rags-to-riches rise. Now he owns two button factories and is building a third. Louisa Lim, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim, NPR
Wang Chunqiao, sitting behind his desk.

"Buttons are my destiny," says button millionaire Wang Chunqiao. They've been responsible for his rags-to-riches rise. Now he owns two button factories and is building a third.

Louisa Lim, NPR

About the Series

China's economic boom has also created challenges inside China. We'll look at how to persuade a billion people to buy something new; the perils and the rewards of doing business in China; how soaring property prices are causing heartache; who's profiting from the thriving trade in fakes; and whether economic reform is really bringing democracy to the communist nation.

Factory workers manually swirl the paint to make multicolored buttons. i i

Factory workers manually swirl the paint to make multicolored buttons. Louisa Lim, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim, NPR
Factory workers manually swirl the paint to make multicolored buttons.

Factory workers manually swirl the paint to make multicolored buttons.

Louisa Lim, NPR

Look down at the shirt you're wearing. Chances are the buttons came from Qiaotou. The small Chinese town, with about 200 factories and 20,000 migrant workers, produces 60 percent of the world's supply.

But Qiaotou's button manufacturers are victims of their own success; their global domination means there's no place left to go and now they're cannibalizing one another at cutthroat prices.

Legend has it that Qiaotou's button boom began on the town's dusty streets. The story goes that three decades ago, three brothers were walking along the street when suddenly it caught their eye that some buttons had been thrown away and landed in the gutter. They thought "there's money to be made here" so they picked up the buttons and decided to sell them. That simple action launched the town onto its trajectory as the button capital of the world.

Poverty and the scarcity of land actually led to Qiaotou's success. Inhabitants had to depend on trade rather than farming, according to Wang Chunqiao, the owner of two of the town's button factories.

"When we started building factories like crazy, it was for our own survival," Wang says. "We had no capital. Everything came from the work of our own two hands."

Huang Changmu, 25, earns $120 a month at Wang's button factory, where he has worked for four years. But many workers are now starting to look beyond unskilled jobs, and a labor shortage is emerging.

For bosses like Wang, that means offering extra enticements.

"Now workers are demanding more," he says. "They want food, accommodation and cultural activities on top of their salaries. We're planning to build a library and sports facilities."

His factories are facing other difficulties, too. Wang complains that profit margins are too low on such a low-tech product, so he's diversifying into lace borders. And last year, the cost of commodities soared worldwide — in part because of demand from China. Copper button prices doubled.

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