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China's toothbrush city expands its presence in the global market
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China's toothbrush city expands its presence in the global market

At the Shuguang toothbrush factory, busy employees man the production line, inserting the bristles into handles, while in a nearby office, the general manager holds a video conference with a German client.

Shuguang is just one of about 4,000 enterprises involved directly or indirectly in making toothbrushes in the township of Hangji in the city of Yangzhou, east China's Jiangsu Province. So dedicated is the place to its specialism that the scent of toiletries hangs in the air.

However, few people are aware that this small town, covering less than 40 square kilometers, produces around 7.5 billion toothbrushes each year. They are exported to more than 80 countries and regions, meaning that one in three toothbrushes produced in the world comes from Hangji.

Toothbrush manufacturing started here in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when a farmer improved toothbrushes by making them with pig bristles. Established in 1976, Shuguang is among the oldest toothbrush factories in Hangji.

Tu Xinye is from the third generation of workers in Shuguang, and has witnessed the growth of the plant, which now has more than 400 employees. "Many senior workers were my father's colleagues and watched me grow up," he said. "So we have the senior workers paired up with the younger ones and teach them skills."

Innovation is important for old factories like Shuguang.

In 2019, at an expo in Frankfurt, Germany, Shuguang presented a toothbrush with a handle made from straw. The biodegradation rate of the toothbrush was 30 percent. A German clinic asked if it was possible to raise the rate to over 90 percent.

Tu and his team raced against time to find a solution to this problem, finally opting for polylactic acid as the material. After repeated attempts, they finally managed to ensure the toughness of the toothbrush handles and the resilience of the bristles.

However, while voicing their satisfaction with the biodegradation rate, the client asked if they could get rid of the unpleasant smell of the new material. Shuguang adjusted the materials used and sent them more than a dozen batches of samples, before ultimately winning orders from the clinic.

Today, the German clinic has become a long-term client of Shuguang. Meanwhile, the company also exports toothbrushes, single-tufted brushes, dental floss and other products to other countries, including the United States and Sweden.

The oral-care products from Hangji can be found not only in European clinics and luxury hotels in Dubai, but also onboard China's research icebreaker Xuelong, for use on its Antarctic expedition.

The industry has been profitable for the township, as well as creating plenty of job opportunities. Many local people work in the industry, while others from elsewhere were attracted to Hangji. According to Yu Hong, an official with the Hangji Township, about 30,000 people from other areas have found jobs here.

Lin Qing from Fujian Province found employment at Shuguang after an online recruitment process. Lin, 28, has been disabled since contracting polio when he was young. But the hard-working man soon learned the sales techniques of e-commerce, and became the owner of two online shops, earning about 10,000 yuan (about 1,380 U.S. dollars) a month.

"I am grateful to the factory, where I can earn both a salary and a sense of achievement," he said.

Hangji is not the only place in China that has profited from focusing on a particular industrial sector. Other locations have also reaped the rewards of industrial agglomeration, including improved supply chains and product innovation.

The mountainous town of Shuijiang in east China's Jiangxi Province boasts 93 wig enterprises that sell their wares to dozens of countries across the globe. In the Zixi County of Jiangxi, nearly half of the 100,000 permanent residents are engaged in the baking industry, creating over 60 bakery brands, with stores in more than 1,000 cities and towns across China. Meanwhile, Caoxian County is China's biggest production base for Hanfu, or traditional Chinese dresses, making about 40 percent of the total units in the domestic market.

"Towns and counties with 'characteristic industries' could expand the market quickly with high production capability, while at the same time attracting domestic and foreign scientific research institutions to collaborate, so as to boost development of the enterprises, upgrade their brands and increase product competitiveness," said Zhang Shiyu, an official with the Hangji high-tech industrial development zone.

XinhuaShen Yi

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