China Amazes Top Cotton Producer and Merchant

More than 90 million people work in Chinese textile mills today.

Published on: Jan 11, 2007

A top California cotton producer and a Tennessee cotton shipper went to China recently, and reported at the 2007 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans Thursday that the change is rapid and incredible.

The October 2006 trip was a multi-segment group from the cotton industry in cooperation with the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service and the Cotton Foundation. John Pucheu, a Tranquillity, Calif., cotton producer was absolutely amazed by change he'd seen in China - in less than 10 years since his last trip.

"I hadn't been to China in 9 years," Pucheu reports. "I couldn't believe the change. At least 10,000 major projects under construction in Beijing, alone. Skyscrapers everywhere…some 20,000 miles of freeways in China now. People in heavy traffic in cars…no bicycles. It's too dangerous in the city on a bicycle."

China is about the same size as the continental United States, Pucheu notes, but has 1.2 billion people. Some 90 million of those people work in some of the most ultra-modern and clean textile mills in the world - or 7% of the population. Indeed, Chinese textile mills consume about 50 million bales of cotton - by far - the most of any country in the world. China grows about 30 million bales as the world's largest producer. Last year, it imported roughly 17 million bales, some of that from the United States, including extra long staple or Pima cotton.

The Yellow River Area, Yangtze River Valley and Northwest Inland are major cotton growing areas, while the Xijiang Province, about 1,600 miles west of Beijing, is the largest cotton-growing province, producing some ELS cotton.

In extreme contrast to the modern cities and textile mills, Chinese cotton production in the country is laborious, because China likes it that way - having the people in the countryside working on small farms, keeps the cities less crowded. For example, Pucheu visited a Chinese farmer and his wife who had 10 acres of cotton. That's considered a "big" cotton grower in China. Ironically, that particular farmer, because of insect problems, will rotate to melons this year.

John Mitchell, a Memphis, Tenn. Cotton merchant and vice president of Cargill Cotton Company, agreed with Pucheu China is changing rapidly and impressively. Mitchell was in China on his own in spring 2006, and also traveled again in October with Pucheu's group. He says of 6,000 textile mills, some 5,000 mills are now privately owned. Gins and warehouses also are privately owned. But the state closely manages the cotton production and policy. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is a major Chinese agency in the country's cotton decisions. That might mean buying from the U.S. India, or Africa.
Meanwhile, the China Cotton Association closely models itself after the National Cotton Council in the United States, representing all segments of the cotton industry from producers to the mills. The only difference is the CCA obviously doesn't lobby for legislation, since China is state controlled.

He says the Chinese mills are state-of-the-art, and the labor isn't slaves.

"It's not cheap labor like we want to stereotype China," Mitchell says.

The Chinese are very involved in top fabrics and apparel, and love to produce fashion shows, Mitchell notes. That, too, often is very westernized.

Pucheu adds that when he was in China 9 years ago, he saw multitudes of Chinese on bicycles with their uniforms.

"Now, they wear western clothes and drive," Pucheu relates.

For those that have never been to China, both Pucheu and Mitchell agree that it's hard to imagine the fascinating country and its current, dramatic transformation otherwise.

Mitchell laughs when he recalls how one jovial Texas member on the October 2006 journey from the U.S. to China marveled of that 10-day visit.

He recalls the amazed Texan visitor quipped - "I'm going back to West Texas and tell people about this (China)…and they won't believe a damn thing I say!"