As New Coronavirus Cases Slow In China, Factories Start Reopening Strict quarantine measures have prevented 300 million migrant workers from returning to work. Now local authorities are trying to get businesses going again. The main bottleneck: a shrunken workforce.

As New Coronavirus Cases Slow In China, Factories Start Reopening

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

China has tried to stop the spread of the coronavirus with strict quarantine measures for weeks now. It's prevented nearly 300 million migrant workers from returning to their jobs, briefly shut down one of the world's largest economies and paralyzed global supply chains. Local governments in China are now trying to get businesses going again. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China is slowly getting back to work. One of the factories that has restarted its production lines is Xusheng Auto Technologies in the Chinese port city of Ningbo. They make machine parts integral to European and American cars.

CLOUD ZHAO: (Through interpreter) Our clients are international, and they didn't stop operations during the outbreak. Unlike other companies who sell to Chinese clients who had to shut down, we really have to get back to work.

E FENG: That's Cloud Zhao, a sales director at the company. Restarting production was a lengthy process. They first had to provide local officials a full list of all employees.

ZHAO: (Through interpreter) This list is analyzed by the public security bureau. And using big data, they determine which workers are safe and can come back to work in the factory.

E FENG: By big data, Zhao is referring to a new government app developed to help control the spread of the virus. Workers enter their national ID number and phone number. The app then spits out which cities and provinces the worker has visited in the last two weeks. If they've passed through a heavily infected area, they must quarantine for two weeks before they return to Xusheng's production line. And that's just the first step.

ZHAO: (Through interpreter) In terms of materialistic preparations, we have to show that we have isolation wards and that we're buying face masks and disinfectant for the factory, that we have enough thermometers.

E FENG: All those plans are submitted to the local government, which sends teams of inspectors for issuing approval. Xusheng is back to 80% of its pre-virus production capacity.

This month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a teleconference speech to 170,000 local officials. Xi called on them to help small and medium businesses weather the economic impact of the outbreak. China's central bank has also said it will make taking out loans or repaying debt easier, perhaps even cut taxes. But specific measures haven't been spelled out yet.

Feng Chucheng, a partner in political risk firm Plenum, says the overcentralization of power in Chinese political systems slows things down.

CHUCHENG FENG: They were told to focus on poverty alleviation, to focus on financial de-risking, which means they were originally under the impression and they were planning to do so to lower the credit.

E FENG: Lower credit as in lower corporate debt and fewer loans. So local officials have waited to loosen up and reopen shop until they get more instructions from Xi Jinping himself.

C FENG: So it takes time from province to province to comprehend what Xi Jinping really talks about. Especially lower-ranking officials - they don't have incentives to work on their own because the risk is if they are at odds with central policy, with central decision-making, they may be purged.

E FENG: But the supply chain goes in both directions. Even though China seems to have contained the virus to just one province, the virus is spreading globally to the rest of East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Michael Chen manages an electronics manufacturing plant with about 2,000 workers in the south of China. He's already preparing for the worst.

MICHAEL CHEN: (Through interpreter) We've been stockpiling our Japanese and Korean components in case they close the factories there and we can't import parts into China anymore.

E FENG: Chen also recently imported South Korean manufacturing equipment for a new production line and needs the Korean engineers who designed the tools to help install them. But now that South Korea is reporting ever-rising numbers of new coronavirus cases...

CHEN: (Through interpreter) They can't come to China. Before, they didn't dare; now they're not allowed.

E FENG: So now the equipment is just sitting in his factory unused. Chen says long-term plans are now impossible to make. The situation is just changing too fast.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

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