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Buy order: Xi's import expo tries to change China's trade image

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Monday, November 12, 2018 – Page B1

SHANGHAI -- You could think of the Brazilians as the crass showboaters, with a samba ensemble so loud that the Germans next door gave up on anyone hearing their businessmen speak and the British had to beg for quiet when their trade minister struggled to make himself heard in a live television interview.

Or you could think of the Brazilians as quite possibly the victors of the China International Import Expo, unmatched in seizing the attention of the attendees who flooded through a trade conference that ranks among the largest ever staged. In so doing, they prevailed over the Hungarian beef stew, the Spanish ham-cutter and the British farting robot.

It's not clear how many sales of Embraer jets that Batuque Digital, the samba ensemble, helped to win with its crowd-drawing mix of whistles and DJ-spun electronic music, all set to a beat that pulsated across the cavernous convention hall.

"At least it makes people stop here and look around and see what's going on," said drummer Kleyton Macedo, who flew in for the event from Rio de Janeiro.

But, then, this wasn't a venue devoted to selling jets. The China International Import Expo wasn't really the venue for hawking any specific kind of product - quite the opposite, in fact. It was a place to browse virtually any kind of product under the sun.

The event took place last week in the world's largest exhibition space in Shanghai, where some 3,600 companies and 400,000 buyers came together for a trade fair and expo the likes of which the world has rarely seen. It was organized on the orders of Xi Jinping, the strongman Chinese President, who saw it as a stage to showcase China as a co-operative ascending superpower. China has been accused by its critics, including U.S. President Donald Trump, of using unfair trade practices to build up exports and a large trade surplus.

China's surplus with the United States was US$258-billion in the first 10 months of this year; in a bid to change that, Mr. Trump has ordered tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese exports to the United States.

For China, the Shanghai import show is an exercise in saying: yes, we really are keen on buying the world's goods.

"This is no ordinary expo," Mr. Xi said this week, calling it "a new platform for the world to access the Chinese market."

Indeed, a person could, within just a few strides, negotiate the acquisition of Indonesian smelted nickel, Brazilian dental chairs, Turkmenistan licorice-root extract and Durex condoms. The breathtaking assortment of goods on offer ranged from Polish amber to a 200-tonne German milling machine to Japanese edible hydrogen to Coast Salish-style totem pole chairs designed and manufactured in China.

But the overwhelming numbers of people and products also meant that extraordinary effort was required to stand out.

The Italians brought an F1 car. The Malaysians handed out durian fruit (attracting a line that extended out of sight). The Hungarians served beef stew with tarhonya. The Kazakhs, inexplicably, served pineapple juice. A Spanish company flew in a Salamancan cortador, which salesman Marcos Yllera called "the best ham-cutter in Spain," salivating over the perfectly aligned half-moons of fat in his meat cuts.

The expo, the salesman said, offered no shortage of opportunity for "eating and getting drunk - maybe you can meet a nice girl." In fact, Belarus had placed a smiling woman on a stage whose sole job appeared to be improving the selfies of male passersby.

The French, meanwhile, played a video with a chipper narrator dispelling the myth of national paresse (idleness), citing statistics asserting that French worker productivity is far better than in Britain.

But that was a hard notion to square with the dedication on display at the United Kingdom's expo outpost. There was a bar stocked with gins and whiskies (a bottle of which had earlier been dispatched to the Brazilians as an apology for shutting down their samba show). A line of people waited for pictures beside the Premier League's golden crown-topped trophy.

And, every once in a while, a large robot with a man inside appeared, sidled over to those chosen to come on stage for photos and greeted them with high-volume kissing sounds - and flatulence. "We do whatever our clients love," said Wang Yang, chief executive of Shanghai Tuxian Technology, which partners with a British company on the 2.4-metre-tall robot. It may not be in the best taste, he acknowledged. But it attracted a lot of attention. "It's what people want.

Like farting and burping."

The sheer size and occasional outlandishness led outside skeptics to dismiss the expo, which China plans to make an annual event, as little more than propaganda.

Inside, too, some questioned its usefulness.

"For us specifically, in our industry, it's not" valuable for sales, said Thomas Taschler, an Austrian seller of materials for copper and steel furnaces. He had just signed a 1-million ($1.5-million) deal, but it wasn't new business: "We've known these people for a long time - for 25 years," he said.

Not everyone was keen on the singing and dancing, either. The Indian presence was restrained, with Manoj Kumar, an assistant manager with the National Agricultural Co-operative Marketing Federation of India, focused on selling rice, sugar and soybeans. "We are not doing show business. We are here to do business," he said.

And indeed, there was no shortage of buyers, strolling for a glimpse of the world's products beating a path to China's door.

Where else could a person come to one place and browse American street sweepers, Azerbaijani wine, Russian forest holdings, Japanese blood-clot test equipment, Trinidad and Tobago asphalt and "Hair Food" with aloe and rosehip from Lesotho?

"It's like seeing the world all at once. It's very important," said Abrahim Boudani, a Moroccan economic counsellor.

The spectacle of it all left an unmistakable impression of a place - and a country - moving to occupy the global centre of commerce. Here were Bulgarian cosmetics vendors chatting in fluent Mandarin; there was an Air China billboard proclaiming "ride the Chinese wind, chase the dreams of the world." Here was a LEGO panda; there were L'Oreal ads bearing a rose drawn in China-red lipstick next to text saying "L'Oreal Congratulates 40th Anniversary of China's Reform and Opening Up."

China may have a reputation as the world's factory, said Mr. Wang, the robot executive. But in a few years, when the middle class swells by another few hundred million, he envisions a country that acquires the world's goods like no other. "When that time comes," he said, "the theme of Chinese peoples' lives will be 'buy, buy, buy.' "

Associated Graphic

Above: A man samples French wine at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai on Tuesday.


Below: An attendee moves to shake hands with a Schunk anthropomorphic gripper hand during the supersized expo.


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