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Quarter of China's sportswear factories idled due to trade war: Nike rival

Hong Kong

A QUARTER of Chinese production capacity used by global sportswear brands is lying idle, according to a manufacturing executive, as the protracted trade war pushes the biggest sports labels out of the Asian nation's factories.

The exodus is forcing factories to offer discounts of 10 per cent to companies such as his to use their dormant production lines, Xtep International Holdings Ltd chairman Ding Shui Po said in an interview with Bloomberg in Hong Kong. The sportswear label is one of a handful of Chinese brands competing with the likes of Nike Inc and Adidas AG.

"Factories are under pretty massive pressure," Mr Ding said. "With Trump's policy, these international brands are shifting sourcing overseas, which results in unoccupied production capacity," he said, referring to President Donald Trump's campaign of levying tariffs on Chinese-made exports to the US in order to force policy concessions from Beijing.

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The idling capacity in a country that's long been the workshop to the world underscores the blow of the trade war to Chinese manufacturers, who are also grappling with an economy that's expanding at its slowest pace in three decades. There are growing signs that the global supply chain that's been in place for decades - and powered by China's economic rise - is being permanently transformed.

The pivot away from China by global firms from Microsoft Corp to bike maker Giant Manufacturing Co, is ongoing and accelerating as the trade war heats up. Mr Trump, in a series of tweets last Friday, "ordered" American companies to seek alternatives to business in China, including moving operations "home and making your products in the USA". The world's largest supplier of consumer goods, Li & Fung Ltd, said in its earnings statement last Thursday that it's actively helping its clients, which include the biggest retailers in the world, move sourcing away from China to other regions. For instance, it assisted one American retailer to reduce its reliance on China from 70 per cent to 20 per cent within two years.

For China's US$4.7 billion industry of sportswear exports, the growing local market can partially make up for waning foreign demand, said Mr Ding. "By shifting to made-in-China and sold-in-China, factories shorten production cycles and that could be good for them," he said.

Mr Ding said existing local sportswear makers such as Xtep are sitting pretty. Earlier this year, Xtep acquired a US-based company that added tennis brand K-Swiss, Palladium boots and Supra shoes to its portfolio.

It plans to expand production of its international brands in China - at the desperate suppliers' lowered prices. "We can produce in these Chinese factories and that's how we have an advantage," Mr Ding said.

Still, the Chinese demand for sports apparel at US$40 billion last year is less than half of the US$117 billion market in the US, according to data from Euromonitor International. Most Chinese consumers also aspire to athleisure from global labels such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.

Mr Ding said this may change with time. "The gap between domestic brands and international brands will slowly be closed," he said. Xtep, whose market share is 4.6 per cent, compared with 15 per cent for local rival Anta Sports Products Ltd, seeks to increase its retail sales five-fold to 50 billion yuan (S$9.7 billion) in the next decade.

Mr Ding expects younger Chinese consumers, especially those born after 1990, to have a greater affinity to local brands. They "are confident about China's rise and identify with national brands", he said. BLOOMBERG