Sep 19, 2020,05:50am EDT
China More Dominant Than Ever In Covid-Related ‘PPE’ — And U.S. Flags

Ken Roberts Contributor

One of the companies importing N-95 masks from China was 3M, which was also manufacturing in the ... [+] GETTY IMAGES

China is now accounting for more than 85% of all U.S. imports in the category dominated by N-95 respirators, disposable and non-disposable face masks, surgical drapes and surgical towels, and, oddly enough, including U.S. flags.

As the United States closes in on 200,000 American deaths attributed to the coronavirus pandemic that originated in China, the textile category for these personal protection equipment items is growing more rapidly than any of China’s other top 15 imports into the United States this year, according to the latest Census Bureau data, which runs through July.

Those top 15 imports accounted for almost 46% of U.S. imports from China.

While overall U.S. imports from China are down 14.71%, which is more than overall U.S. imports, which are off 12.04%, the increase in the category dominated by the masks was 395.47%.

The $10.8 billion total is three times the total the United States imported from the entire world in the same first seven months of 2019.

That allowed the percentage of those imports arriving from China to increase from a still-lofty 70.17% in the first seven months of 2019, before the outbreak of the coronavirus, to the current market share, 85.43%.

Even as the United States has aggressively ramped up its own manufacturing of such items, it has come to rely more heavily on China for these life-saving pieces of medical equipment than any time in at least a decade and almost certainly ever.

While dominated by masks and other PPE, it is a broad category that includes furniture movers’ pads, pillowcases and wall banners — as long as they are made of textiles — and U.S. flags.

Through there are a number of U.S. manufacturers of U.S. flags, imports from China in the first seven months of the year accounted for 98.91% of the total. The $4.28 million in U.S. flags, a trifling compared to $1.4 billion in N95 respirators, was the lowest total since 2015. The percentage, however, has been consistent for years.

Though the category is broad, it does not, of course, necessarily capture all personal protection equipment.

Looking more broadly at the leading U.S. imports from China through the first seven months of the year, 12 of the 15 fell in value.

In addition to the textile category, a category of miscellaneous plastic articles — which also includes products that could be related to the pandemic, such as pneumatic mattresses, plastic facemasks and other laboratory ware — also increased 13.22% but accounted for a record 53.72% of all U.S. imports.

Computer parts also increased, up 9.97% but China accounted for the lowest percentage of U.S. imports in more than a decade, at 28.7%. Two years earlier, that percentage was at 69.7%.

One category, furniture fell more than 37% while three categories, toys, seats and lamps and lighting fixtures, all fell more than 20%. For all four, their percentage of U.S. market share was lower than at any time in more than a decade.

Ken Roberts

I didn’t leave the womb thinking I would find my life’s work writing and speaking about trade data, trying to make it interesting and relevant. But this is where I find myself. Today, the company I founded in 1998, WorldCity, has published annual TradeNumbers publications around the country, from Seattle to Miami, Los Angeles to New York and numerous points in between. Monthly, we upload more than 10 million pages and page views of Census data at, on hundreds of airports, seaports, countries, and export and import commodities. I serve on the Federal Reserve’s Trade and Transportation Advisory Council. In the last year or so, I have spoken about trade in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Laredo, Miami and Chicago. I also post a weekly Trade Matters video. I don’t expect you to fawn over it like I do, but I hope I bring a little clarity, a different perspective or some insights that are helpful.