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China Dominates Medical Supplies, in This Outbreak and the Next

Alarmed at China’s stranglehold over supplies of masks, gowns, test kits and other front-line weapons for battling the coronavirus, countries around the world have set up their own factories to cope with this pandemic and outbreaks of the future.

When the outbreak subsides, those factories may struggle to survive. China has laid the groundwork to dominate the market for protective and medical supplies for years to come.

Factory owners get cheap land, courtesy of the Chinese government. Loans and subsidies are plentiful. Chinese hospitals are often told to buy locally, giving China’s suppliers a vast and captive market.

Once vaccines emerge, demand will plummet. Factories will close. But Chinese companies are likely to have the lowest costs by far and be best positioned for the next global outbreak.

“The Chinese have been successful weaving global personal protection equipment dominance with supply-chain command and control,” said Omar Allam, a former Canadian trade official trying to establish production of in-demand N95 medical respirators in his country.

China’s grip on the market is a testament to its drive to dominate important cogs in the global industrial machine.

For years, China’s leaders have worried that the country depended too much on foreign sources for everything from medical supplies to microchips to airliners. It has used subsidies, economic targets and other government inducements to emerge as a powerhouse in those important industries.

When Chinese leaders grew concerned about pollution and dependence on foreign oil, for example, they helped local makers of solar panels, wind turbines and high-speed rail equipment clobber the competition. They have taken similar steps to dominate industries of the future, like the next generation of wireless data transmission, known as 5G.

The state’s heavy involvement in its economy has led to waste and graft that could slow China’s growth. But the policies have often proved effective in building industries that can withstand losses and tough foreign competition. Medical supplies may be similar.

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