A trade fair for the times
Exporters on the mainland are gearing up for the Canton Fair's second trade-matching forum this month in the hope of meeting domestic buyers.
The slump in overseas orders brought on by the global financial crisis has badly hurt sales, prompting the fair's organiser - the Ministry of Commerce - to look for ways to open up the domestic market.
The ministry's first answer to the global downturn, the trade-matching forum, was launched at the spring session of this year's fair. It invites major department stores and supermarket chains to meet exporters.
It marked a big departure for the 52-year-old fair, which was traditionally only for overseas buyers.
And the fair is set to break another tradition this month - it will be opened to the public. A product expo will be held at the end of each session, giving the public the opportunity to shop at the previously exclusive trade fair.
Held twice a year, the Canton Fair, whose official name is the China Import and Export Fair, is a barometer of the overseas appetite for mainland products.
Around 165,000 buyers from 209 countries attended the fair's spring session in Guangzhou this year. Trade deals worth US$26.23 billion were signed.
But those results were well down on the two previous spring sessions due to the impact of the global financial crisis. In 2007, a record 206,749 buyers visited the spring fair. Last year, deals worth a record US$38.23 billion were signed at the session.
Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a journalist turned China affairs commentator who first covered the fair in the 1970s, said it bore witness to the mainland's changing economic and political landscape.
Born in the spring of 1957, the fair had a humble beginning.
'The main reason for organising the Canton Fair in 1957 was to have some foreign currency,' fair spokesman Chen Chaoren said. 'Everyone needs to have some spare money in their pocket.'
Only 1,223 buyers from 19 countries attended the first fair. And only 13 companies, all state-owned conglomerates, took part.
'China was poor in those days, we even had problems coming up with sufficient goods to showcase at the fair,' Chen said. 'But no matter how difficult, it has been held non-stop over the years, not even stopping during the Cultural Revolution.'
Lau saw the early fairs as major diplomatic events, allowing China to showcase its friends in the international community.
'China was a closed country at that time,' he said. 'There wasn't a single Western buyer. Most of the participants were from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America; there were also Hong Kong and Macau buyers.'
The fact that the mainland economy was largely sealed off from the rest of the world meant the Canton Fair was a vital part of China's foreign trade.
In the 1970s, trade deals signed at the fair accounted for more than half of the country's exports.
And as the country embarked on economic reforms in the late '70s, it became the most important window for foreign trade.
The Canton Fair is still the country's biggest trade fair, more than half a century down the road, but overseas buyers and mainland exporters no longer rely on it to do business.
It now accounts for less than 10 per cent of the mainland's exports.
Kellogg Ng, vice-president of the Hong Kong Footwear Association, said: 'Going to the fair nowadays is more a habit.'
He said the Canton Fair was more useful in the past when exporters did not have other channels to meet overseas buyers.
'Now, there are industry-specific trade fairs and exporters can also attend trade fairs in Europe and the US to meet the buyers directly,' Mr Ng said.
The number of buyers, from 19 countries, who attended the first Canton Fair in 1957: 1,223
The number of buyers, from 209 countries, who attended this year's spring fair: 165,000
Trade deals signed in April this year amounted to, in US dollars,: $26.23b