China says its economy will soon be back on track after three years of "zero-COVID." But the shadow of the disruptive policy still lingers over its manufacturing heartland, casting doubt over the pace of the recovery.

In downtown Guangzhou, the southern metropolis that’s home to China’s largest garment wholesale markets, factory owners and recruiters say workers are reluctant to come back, scarred by the experience of long lockdowns, no wages and violent protests during China’s efforts last year to stamp out the virus. Some hold up cardboard signs touting job vacancies, while others run after prospective employees, begging for a few minutes to talk about conditions and benefits.

Tang Ning, a recruiter in the district of Haizhu — which was locked down for a month late last year — says she hasn’t been able to hire a single worker in the week she’s been trying. The garment factory she’s worked at for more than a decade had more than 30 employees before the recent Lunar New Year break, but just 10 returned from their traditional trip home to see loved ones.