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Jingle Bells in Yiwu

What gave birth to today's stronghold of the Christmas industry began almost 40 years ago with a dispute between a street vendor and the top bigwig in the central Chinese city of Yiwu. Communist officer Xie Gaohua was said to be on his way to the city government palace in 1982 when Feng Aiqian intercepted him. "Why do you always let us evict?" Feng had previously sold shoelaces on the street. In the eyes of law enforcement officers, it was “carrying out a capitalist activity”, which was strictly forbidden at the time, because Mao Zedong's fanatical ideology was still having an effect.

The self-confident Feng could not be brushed off with phrases, onlookers gathered. To avoid a scene, Xie invited her to his office. The two smoked cigarettes together while the poorly educated street vendor explained to the powerful cadre the benefits of trading to alleviate poverty in the city. It clicked with Xie. He turned politically and set up a proper market for small goods. The small trade, which was initially only tolerated, developed "like a volcanic eruption," Xie later told the local newspaper Dushi Kuaibao.

In the following decades, the market hall was to become the world's largest transshipment point for consumer goods and decorative goods. Due to a series of coincidences, the focus eventually shifted to the niche but highly lucrative Christmas items - with the result that Yiwu now dominates the global market in this segment. China itself does not celebrate Christmas, but in Yiwu the professional buyers from Europe and the USA stock up on cheap goods on a large scale. Here you will find loads of Christmas tree balls, wooden niches, fairy lights, nativity scenes, angels, stars and everything else that the consumer could wish for for the Christian festival of love - and mass consumption. Including a lot that emphasizes brightly flashing or plays "jingle bells" when you press it.

The ARTE documentation "Merry Christmas, China" shows the flourishing business, but also the dreary everyday life of many workers behind this glittering, kitschy world of goods. According to Chinese sources, up to 70 percent of all Christmas items in the world come from Yiwu. The corona pandemic was also unable to slow down export success. In 2020, two fully loaded freight trains will leave the freight terminal in Yiwu every day for Europe. By the end of August, the city had already sent 43,000 tons of goods to customers in the west, reports the Yiwu Tianmeng Industrial Investment Corporation. That is 187 percent more than in the previous year. The trains are spread over twelve routes, the most distant end of which is Madrid. They leave freight containers on the way at the freight stations - many of them full to the brim with Christmas items.

The export is worthwhile: According to the central government, the city of Yiwu is one of the “top 100 locations” in the booming country. When Xie took up his post in 1982, Yiwu was still desperately poor, a dirty industrial center in an agricultural region. The farmers in the surrounding counties fed themselves on their fields, but in the city some citizens barely had enough to eat. Xie Gaohua was 50 years old and brand new as party secretary. This post is the most powerful at the local level in the communist hierarchy - the mayor of a city must also carry out his orders. Xie's main mission was to fight poverty. The reformer Deng Xiaoping, then party leader and thus direct successor to Mao Zedong, had given it that way. But how was Xie going to do it?