China’s international exhibition of imports turned into a “China only” trade fair as foreign dignitaries and exhibitors gave it a pass due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, participants said.
A worker at the China International Import Expo, which began on Thursday in Shanghai, told Radio Free Asia that previously invited foreign heads of state or global companies were absent from the event.
Chinese President Xi Jinping started the expo in 2018, but was a noticeable absentee this year, instead choosing to deliver a keynote speech via video. He sent Vice-Premiers Han Zheng, Hu Chunhua and Party Committee Secretary of Shanghai Li Qiang to the expo on his behalf.
French President Emmanuel Macron and then European Union trade commissioner Phil Hogan had attended last year’s event, which put the international spotlight on the fair.
A video taken by a participant at the expo showed a largely-empty 360,000 square meter exhibition hall with little to no visitors, while some staff members and exhibitors were even seen sleeping on site.
One exhibitor, who gave his last name as Zhu, said many foreign businesses and buyers were absent from the show and those who had attended were forced to do so under executive orders issued by those companies, in an apparent attempt to make the venue seem less empty.
“It was obvious that the trade war between China and the United States, as well as the strict epidemic control and travel restrictions because of the ongoing pandemic would result in a lot of no-shows, so it’s difficult to understand why the organizers would still insist on going ahead with the expo at this time,” Zhu said. “It’s a pity that hundreds and millions of taxpayers' money are just going to waste.”
There were at least 400,000 registered visitors to the expo according to organizers, but there was no indication of how many of these were from overseas.
A worker at a hotel near the exhibition hall said that their rooms were also mostly left empty as there were only very few foreign exhibitors. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, foreigners entering China would have to undergo two weeks of quarantine as well as provide negative COVID-19 tests.
Some also suspected that the pandemic was not the only factor that affected the turnout. Foreign exhibitors have previously said that the expo was more for publicity, rather than an actual platform for making trade deals, according to two surveys last year.
In one poll that surveyed European businesses in China who had participated in the first 2018 expo, at least half of the signed deals that year had not materialized, according to a report by Agence France-Presse. Some said that their Chinese partners had not delivered on their promises and the signed contracts were mostly symbolic.
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