By Koh Gui Qing
BEIJING (Reuters) - A broad and bruising downturn is sweeping through China's giant manufacturing sector, ensnaring thousands of factories already fighting for survival in the face of plunging profit margins.
While the misery has not yet reached levels seen in 2008 when global financial turmoil caused trade to seize up, Chinese exporters across industries are battling hard times as Europe's crisis and tight credit conditions at home pummel sales.
The tough times are clear from China's trade data released this weekend, which showed exports growth in November at its most sluggish in two years. Sales to Europe, China's biggest market, rose in single digits for the third straight month, a sharp slowdown considering growth averaged more than 18 percent in the first eight months of 2011.
"I expect next year to be even worse," said Danny Lau, chairman of Hong Kong's Small and Medium Enterprises Association, whose members include China factory owners. He said factories already report a 15 percent annual drop in orders.
"It's like the whole of Europe has no water, no money. If this continues, it will be extremely troublesome for us."
Most think the worst can be avoided if Europe survives its troubles, but the stakes are nonetheless high: millions of factory jobs are on the line and retrenchment would bring unwanted social instability to China ahead of a once-a-decade transition of China's top leadership due late next year.
Already, a wave of industrial disputes has hit factories around the country, from the manufacturing heartland Pearl River Delta in southern Guangdong province to the Yangtze river Delta near the country's financial capital Shanghai in the east.
Beijing is not taking any chances. It signalled a shift in monetary policy in November by cutting for the first time in three years the amount of cash banks have to keep in reserve to soothe a local credit crunch mostly punishing smaller firms.
It is not clear if the policy turnaround can stem factory closures in China, the world's top exporter in 2010, but Lau is not hopeful. Twelve other company officials Reuters spoke to from sectors ranging from steel to textile were also not optimistic.
China may use a downswing to push manufacturers up the value chain by letting labour-intensive factories shut to make way for more capital-intensive ones, Lau said.
"Officials tell you they won't sacrifice us, but in reality they are sacrificing us," he said. "There's nothing we can do."
NOWHERE TO HIDE
On the ground, few businesses appear immune to a swooning economy -- even those that rely on domestic demand -- thanks to massive increases in the price of raw materials and the inability of firms to pass them onto price-savvy consumers.
Price increases among China's raw materials suppliers have averaged 9.7 percent over the last nine months. Consumer goods makers have had to absorb more than half of that, managing an average price increase of just 4.4 percent in the same period.
As was the case in 2008, manufacturers high up the supply chain such as raw material producers, were first to feel the headwinds of cooling demand.
"Our orders for December will fall 10 to 15 percent from November as customers' demand has shrunk," said an official at China's Maanshan Iron & Steel, one of China's largest state-owned steelmakers.
"We are trying to accept small bookings, such as even a 50-tonne deal in an effort to retain the market, but this also leads to higher cost."
In better times, large Chinese steel mills typically take bookings of at least a few thousand tonnes.
The gloom percolates down the supply chain. Taiyuan Heavy Co Ltd, which sells machines to Chinese factories including steel makers, said demand is flat because its customers are struggling.
With businesses suffering, workers are shopping less, and firms from textile mills to car makers feel the squeeze.
Alibaba.com, China's biggest e-commerce firm that sells everything from doors to sweets, had its worst quarter in almost two years from July to September. It expects Chinese consumption to take "considerable time" to rebound.
Textile makers are also worried.
"We are not optimistic about next year," said Chen Shiwei at Jiangsu Miaotong Textile Co. Ltd, a textile mill in China's eastern province of Jiangsu. "Production will definitely slow."
Chinese cotton prices already betray the strain, down 40 percent from February's record peaks.
THE ODD SPARKLE
To be sure, the downtrend is not hitting all firms evenly.
Those favoured by Beijing in subsidised, "strategic" sectors such as green technology have a buffer from economic anxieties, said Keith Olson, director at Environmental Investment Services Asia Ltd, a regional fund focused on environment and clean energy.
Luxury consumption is another bright spot.
Diamond seller Pluczenik Group reckons that China's growing rich make diamonds "a necessity, not a luxury purchase."
"Diamonds aren't like televisions or refrigerators. The demand is fuelled mainly from weddings," said Pluczenik's Chief Executive Tzvi Pluczenik.
Shipping firms are wincing from slowing trade. Maersk Line, the world's top container shipping firm, expects to be in the red this year.
In some ways, the latest wobble in China's economy resembles that in 2008-09, said Rob Subbaraman, chief Asia economist at Nomura in Hong Kong. First exports slow, then firms cut investment, and finally consumers trim spending.
But there are also worrisome differences: major economies have little room to cut interest rates; weak global demand is aggravated by China's tight credit conditions; and Beijing is less prone to big-bang stimulus compared to three years ago.
This means China cannot count on a repeat of 2009 when exports surged on global monetary and fiscal stimulus and spurred an economic recovery, Subbaraman said. Instead, Chinese consumers need to pull their weight and bolster China's economy.
Yet with shoppers elsewhere staying at home, it would be hard to coax typically thrifty Chinese to spend their way into growth. And not all factories can afford the time.
"A lot of factories have gone bankrupt," said Liu Shengqiang, manager of Chiyuan Clothing Factory in Guangzhou.
"My customers in Denmark say one-third of the clothing stores there are closing, so they're not buying. It's the same in the Netherlands and Spain and Italy, and the credit situation is even worse."
(Additional reporting by Terril Yue Jones and Fang Yan in BEIJING,; Melanie Lee, Ruby Lian in SHANGHAI, James Pomfret, Donny Kwok, Alison Leung, Farah Master, Lee Chyen Yee and Leonora Walet in HONG KONG; Editing by Brian Rhoads, Don Durfee and Kim Coghill)