Tianjin, COVID, and Losing Chinese Labor

Several signs point to THE possibility of Chinese officials instituting at least a partial lockdown of the northern port city of Tianjin as early as this weekend. The largest northern Chinese port, Tianjin is also a city of over 12 million people, and its port is vital for delivering goods–bulk ores, coal, liquid fuels–for the region’s heavy industries and textile manufacturing. 

The Omicron variant has already been detected in the city, notably in the Beichen and Dongli districts, where local health officials mandated localized testing and quarantine restrictions on May 16. Widespread testing through these areas–and the removal of tens of thousands of residents into forced quarantine–now looks like it might spread throughout the city. Local officials have also already gone ahead and identified a scapegoat: imported frozen food products.

What’s a little authoritarian lockdown without some trade nationalism?

Tianjin already experienced a partial lockdown in January of this year. Partial in part due to the city’s vital role as the primary port serving Beijing, and also a domestic concern over optics during the Olympics. As we’ve seen from reports and local social media uploads, the lockdowns at the very least cause an undue amount of stress on local Chinese residents. At their worst, they reveal the ugliest face of an authoritarian regime that uses drones to threaten its citizens who dare to scream out in hunger in the middle of the night.

Beyond the human toll of these lockdowns, the Chinese economy and manufacturing base is increasingly finding itself disconnected from global trade. China’s financial hub of Shanghai is currently in its seventh week of lock-down, the southern port city and manufacturing hub of Guangzhou is under lockdown, more and more districts of the capital city of Beijing are entering a so-called “slow motion” lockdown. If we add in Tianjin, as it increasingly looks like we might, that’s several of China’s largest trading and industrial zones, plus the administrative core, under lockdown.

Even in cases where the government seeks to ease lockdowns for critical manufacturing and port operations, worker shortages in China are causing all manner of delays and supply chain dislocations. Over a hundred ships are waiting off of the port of Shanghai as of writing (Hong Kong and Shenzen have nearly 200). Lest you think that labor issues have been sorted out at Western ports, let me remind you that there is still a wait of over three weeks for ships to dock at the port of Vancouver.

It is hard to overexaggerate the role of the Chinese worker in our current globalized economy, and the impact Chinese labor has had on the post-Cold War system. All of that is going away. In return? Rising labor costs, at a minimum. Assuming you can find the workers. Think inflation is bad now? Just wait.

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