PREMIER ZHU RONGJI presided at the opening of the China Hi-Tech Fair's inaugural session in October 1999, followed by Vice-Premier Wu Bangguo in 2000. Last year State Councillor Wu Yi was the guest of honour, and overseas VIPs at past fairs have included Britain's pugilistic Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. This year Ms Wu sent a letter and the highest-ranking foreign dignitary in attendance was Italy's deputy minister for productive activities. Believe it or not, this is in fact a real position in the Italian government and not a stilted translation provided by fair organisers. Italy does indeed have a Ministro Attivita Produttive. Whether Italy actually has much in the way of productive activities to minister to is, of course, another question entirely. Not far behind the Italian deputy minister for productive activities on the fair's pecking order was Canada's associate deputy minister for fisheries and oceans, who gave a keynote address on - what else? - 'O Canada! A culture of innovation in information and communications technologies'. To borrow an appalling phrase that routinely pops up in conversations on the mainland, the 'quality' of this year's VIP list was rather 'lower' than those of previous years. The phrase in question, by the way, is ta [tamen] suzhi hendi, literally 'his-her [or their] quality is very low'. It is usually used in a derogatory sense to describe anyone the speaker regards as being less cultured than him or herself. A university graduate, for example, might refer dismissively to the 'low quality' of a migrant worker or peasant. This column certainly does not want any enemies at either the Ministro Attivita Produttive or the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans. But the fact remains that guest lists matter enormously on the mainland and the fair's diminished pulling power could be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Or is it instead a sign of its maturity? In fairness to the fair's organisers, it should be noted that this was always going to be a difficult time to attract bigwigs from Beijing, what with the all-important 16th Party Congress now only weeks away. And in the absence of big names from the capital, attracting dignitaries from abroad is a thankless task. Nevertheless, at least one Shenzhen government official worried that the fair was struggling and suspected many of the contracts being credited to the fair this year were ones of convenience. At best they would have been inked regardless of the fair; at worst they are window dressing that would never be followed through on. Such contracts are one of many quantitative barometers that the fair's organisers point to as evidence of its success. For example, they brag that contracts signed at the first three annual fairs were worth more than US$25.45 billion. It is, of course, an impressive and detailed figure. But ask for more information about the deals in question, or how many of the contracts were realised, and the answers get a lot fuzzier. Other important statistics routinely trotted out as evidence of the fair's success include the number of overseas countries represented, attendance figures and even the area of the exhibition halls, right down to the last square metre. The fact that each year's figure is invariably higher than the last suggests Shenzhen officials are more steeped in the bad old planning culture than they care to admit. Shenzhen's fascination with so-called 'hi-tech output' is another good example of how stubbornly much of old China lives on in the new. Basically, at each year's fair Shenzhen officials brag about how many more hi-tech products they have produced this year versus last, and how much of industrial output and exports are accounted for by hi-tech products. Speaking at the opening press conference for this year's fair, Mayor Yu Youjun noted production of hi-tech products increased 27.2 per cent over the first eight months of this year to 101.6 billion yuan (about HK$95.21 billion) - an amount equivalent to 46.8 per cent of industrial production over the same period. But just how does one define what is and is not a hi-tech product in this day and age anyway? Is a plastic PC casing a hi-tech product? How about a toy that contains a chip more powerful than a 1960s-era mainframe computer or those popular kids shoes that have flashing lights and - presumably - some mysterious power source embedded in their soles? Countries like Japan take a more sensible approach, by simply breaking down their output statistics by product category and then letting anyone who wants to decide what is and is not 'hi-tech'. But even in supposedly progressive Shenzhen the officials seem reluctant to give up control over their numbers, and the power this gives them to declare their cherished fair a success.