Wen Jiabao

FYI: What's the story with the Canton Fair?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am

Well, for a start, it's no longer officially known by that name, despite the instant recognition the words Canton Fair enjoy around the world.

Mainland authorities, in their wisdom, recently announced they would be changing the short, sweet and location-specific title for the longer and decidedly non-catchy Chinese Import and Export Fair.

It's unlikely the name change will make much difference internationally, where the Canton Fair has been part of the trading lexicon for 50 years; at no stage was it deemed necessary to change it to the Guangzhou Fair, in line with the preferred style used when referring to the Guangdong provincial capital.

The fair has taken place twice a year since the inaugural event in 1957, a time when China didn't have much to offer for sale to the world. What a difference a half-century can make! The business world now beats a path to China's doorstep and travellers have the option of flying into all the major east-coast cities from overseas airports instead of having to take the train, or ferry, from Hong Kong to southern China.

Official figures show the first fair, which was held in the spring, drew just 1,223 buyers from 19 countries and territories. Attendance has grown rapidly over the years, with only one major nosedive, during the Sars crisis of 2003, when the previous year's attendance of 120,000 dropped to only 20,000. Turnover, too, has soared. The fair's total turnover in 1957 was US$87 million. Last year, the two sessions raked in more than US$66 billion worth of business - its highest to date - according to the fair's website.

Last year, the spring session, attended by a posse of political heavyweights from Beijing including Vice-Premier Wu Yi and Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, drew 190,000 delegates representing 211 countries. The booths at the fair - these days numbering about 30,000 - showcase what contemporary Chinese industry can offer the commercial world: high-quality goods at cut-rate prices. The renaming to the Chinese Import and Export Fair, formally announced recently by Premier Wen Jiabao, was partially a sop to western worries about the deluge of cheap Chinese goods. 'Look,' is the message conveyed by the change, 'we buy stuff too.'

For all the supposed internationalism of the Canton Fair, the 101st session of which begins today, it appears not to have had access to a native English speaker when producing its promotional material. The fair's website message from Hu Chusheng, deputy director and secretary general of Chinese Export Commodities, is a minor masterpiece of sloppy syntax.

'Succeeding to its resplendent history, we salute a magnificent future,' says Hu. 'Let's join hand in hand and witness the future together.'