China’s largest trade fair goes online as coronavirus shuts doors

SHANGHAI/GUANGZHOU/HONG KONG — China’s biggest import and export fair started on Monday in some of the strangest of circumstances of its six decades — in a digital format and minus physical visitors.

Canton Import and Export Fair has been a semiannual diary fixture for businesses across the region since 1957, drawing hundreds of thousands of international visitors to the southern city of Guangzhou, the crucible of China’s reform-era industrial transformation. Producers of everything from food products to solar panels use it as a chance to make contacts and strike deals with existing or potential customers.

With China still severely restricting inbound travel to control the spread of the new coronavirus, this 127th incarnation of the fair represents an experiment to see if visitors will still flock to meet and greet industry peers and make deals even without a chance to touch products.

Rather then turn up in Guangzhou, nearly 26,000 exhibitors are displaying their goods on a Canton Fair website under categories including electrical appliances, chemical products, medical devices and food.

Over 8,000 are using live-streaming video to showcase their wares: Chinese internet operator Tencent Holdings is the provider of the fair’s infrastructure, which includes cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Those logging onto the Canton Fair website can click buttons to send messages to companies they are interested in or to schedule chats.

The fair comes as businesses around the world are feeling the strain of months of interrupted trade and crashing economies.

“We have no choice but to grab onto whatever means to sell,” said Christine Ng, chief executive of Malaysia’s Ecel World Trade. But Ng, whose company offering food supplements and hair tonic has been participating in the fair for years, said she was not hopeful of making many deals at the event.

Zaimah Osman, a Malaysian trade official in Guangzhou, said some exhibitors from her country had pulled out due to uncertainties arising from the online platform.

“Without the usual face-to-face negotiation, exhibitors said they are unsure how a deal can be done,” she said. “(But) we hope the online platform can reach out to more people.”

A lack of face-to-face interactions is not stopping some Chinese manufacturers from demonstrating their offerings. Instead, it has motivated many factories to take their sales pitch to the next level. 

One towel maker, for instance, washed his hair in front of the camera in an effort to show how quickly his product could absorb water. A producer of holiday ornaments gave viewers a virtual tour of her factory, introducing dozens of different decorated Christmas trees one after another. 

Inevitably there have been instances of technical hitches, with the odd livestream suddenly turning dark. At other times, exhibitors forget to turn off their microphone after a live show and accidentally leak background conversations, the sort of issue that has dogged millions of “work from home” employees during the pandemic.

While the fair may stimulate some leads, the headwinds are fierce. China’s exporters are facing a trade war and other tensions with the U.S. While the Chinese economy has been showing signs of bouncing back from the pandemic-induced downturn, many other parts of the world are still in crisis mode. China’s trade volume declined 5% in the first five months of the year.

The Canton Fair is held twice yearly in spring and autumn. The spring running, which was originally to open in mid-April, will continue online for 10 days.

Elsewhere in the region, Hong Kong and Singapore are eyeing user appetite for online conventions and trade fairs, wondering whether their own lucrative role in hosting such events may diminish over time if attendees learn to make do with digital encounters.

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