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Temu, Shein Packages and Electric Cars Prop Up China’s Exports

(Bloomberg) -- In a dismal year for China’s export economy, two categories stood out for their rapid growth: cars and cheap, direct-to-consumer parcels.

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The two segments grew 29% and 69% respectively last year and represent the fastest expansion among sectors with an export value of at least $10 billion, according to an analysis of Chinese customs data by Bloomberg News.

The explosive pace, which runs counter to the overall downward trend in Chinese exports, underscores how geopolitical pressure and a global slowdown have shaped the trajectory of what’s most in demand from China’s vast manufacturing complexes.

A global boom in demand for electric vehicles and a Western blockade on Russia saw a surge in exports of Chinese-made cars. At the same time, budget-conscious shoppers worldwide are buoying bargain-basement e-commerce chains like Shein and Temu, which mostly send consumers their purchases directly from Chinese warehouses.

The clamor for cheap products has been particularly strong in the US. About 2 million packages valued at $800 or less — meaning they’re not subject to customs duties — flow into the country each day, more than 30% of which are just from Temu and Shein, according to a Select Committee estimate.

The simultaneous growth in cars and cheap direct-to-consumer goods also highlights a longer-term transition playing out in the world’s second-biggest economy. China has outlined ambitious plans to shift away from being a major producer of low-priced goods and become a global powerhouse in future-facing, high-tech industries like EVs. But the continued popularity of low-cost items and their importance to the export sector shows how difficult that transformation is likely to be.

“These low-value articles are exactly the same old traditional goods that make China the world’s factory,” said Dongshu Liu, an assistant professor specializing in Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.

“The surge shows China’s cost advantage in producing budget products, but some other higher-value industries are declining, which is not a good sign,” he said.

But last year’s booming industries face substantial headwinds that are likely to hurt growth in 2024.

Economic uncertainty is weighing on the global auto market and China’s EV exports risk being upended by a European Union probe into whether they unfairly benefit from generous government subsidies. That could see provisional tariffs imposed on inbound shipments to the bloc later this year.

Read More: China’s Stranglehold on EV Supply Chain Will Be Tough to Break

At the same time, the US’s tighter rules around sourcing battery materials target the Asian nation, while industry giants like General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. have warned Americans’ enthusiasm for buying for EVs is slowing.

Cheap parcels may also find themselves in the spotlight in the US, particularly as fast-fashion behemoth Shein inches toward its long-awaited initial public offering. That’s drawing intense scrutiny around its data privacy and security. American lawmakers have also urged the government to close the loophole that allows Shein and Temu to avoid having their packages face some customs inspections due to the low-value of what they ship.

It may not be all doom and gloom in 2024 though and, compared with a property market meltdown and slumping Chinese consumer confidence, exports could prove relatively resilient.

In US dollar terms, this year’s exports may be in line with 2023’s level, according to Larry Hu, head of China economics at Macquarie Group Ltd. A pick up in demand for electronics is set to aid the sector, but strained international relations, like those surrounding the new-energy and auto industries, signal a lot of uncertainty still lies ahead.

“New trade barriers are a non-negligible downside risk in 2024,” said Hu. “It’s unpredictable whether and when it will take place.”

--With assistance from Daniela Wei and Dennis Ting.

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