What China is becoming was showcased in a row of exhibits. Why was I the only one looking at them?
The China International Fair for Investment and Trade (CIFIT) is one of the largest and most important trade shows/ exhibitions in China. It happens each year in Xiamen at the exhibition center that’s a block away from my apartment. To put it generally, it’s basically a giant fair celebrating international trade with a special emphasis on showing the world what developmental projects are currently going on in China. Every once in a while a Chinese big wig will announce a piece of major trade news there like, “We will relax the restrictions on foreign investments, and steadily open-up the finance, education, culture and healthcare markets.” Diplomats, government officials, business people, and investors from all over the world descend upon Xiamen for this fair. Apparently, they are supposed to hobnob each other . . . The reality seems a little different.
There were people standing outside the Xiamen exhibition center selling tickets to get into the CIFIT and the three or four other trade fairs that piggybacked on this international show’s popularity. But I didn’t want to pay — I never pay to get into trade shows. I went over to the office where investors and special guests can register and get special passes, filled out a form, and looked curiously at the sign that said I was supposed to have preregistered online and paid a 50 RMB fee. I walked up to the check in booth and began my show.
My show, basically, means acting like a know-nothing, monolingual foreign investor who just stepped off a plane for the sole purpose of going to the fair. The reality is that I am a blogger who has an apartment a block away, speaks okay Mandarin, and has been in China for years. I fill out my registration form completely illegibly and speak waterfalls of English.
It is, of course, far easier to just give an idiot like this whatever he wants.
It worked. I got a pass with my picture on it saying that I’m a representative for VJT International and a goodie bag pre-stocked with brochures about some of the companies exhibiting at the fair. I then passed through security and was on the inside.
The place was rocking. I stood before a giant installation of an old Chinese gate that had vendors piled up all around its base. People everywhere were buying and selling tea, wine, little Buddha statues, and kitschy carvings of Chinese landscapes. These were the commercial shows, which were none too interesting except for the fact that I was able to get drunk off of free wine.
I eventually made it through these booths, rounded a corner, and entered the CIFIT area. It was in the main hall of the exhibition center, which was a giant, warehouse like structure. In neat rows large pavilions were set up for each province in China. The exhibits basically outlined the major development projects each province was undertaking. Their purpose, apparently, was to impress the rest of country and potentially attract investors. The interesting thing was that each and every province was doing about the same thing.
Building new hi-tech zones.
Building new industrial zones.
Building new research and development clusters.
Building new airport logistics parks.
Building new bridges.
Building new highways.
Building new rail lines.
Building new ports.
Building new resource extraction operations.
Building new city districts.
Building new cities.
Building new logistics node cities (mega-city clusters).
Building new land.
Building, building, building.
I have been researching China’s new cities and massive development projects for a number of years now and the insanity of relatively insignificant cities like Changzhou adding on new urban additions the size of Houston no longer phase me. Development on this scale is normal here. But as I walked between the pavilions for each province even I was floored by the absolute colossal extent of the building. This is a cliche statement, everybody has been saying this about China for the past 30 years, but I’ve been there, I’ve seen this process at work, I understand what “new industrial zone,” “new hi-tech cluster,” “new city,” really entails.
What’s happening here is bigger than anybody knows. If you were to take everything that I’ve written on this blog and in my book about China’s new city movement and multiplied it by 100 you may catch a fleeting glimpse at the extent of what this country is creating.
Trying to understand development in China is like trying to form a conception of the universe or trying to truly understand how much a billion of something actually is. It’s not possible, it’s far too big, far too complex, and changing far too quickly.
Of course, in this fray of provincial promotion there was no mention of the side-effects of this development. No reference to the air, water, and soil pollution, the millions of people kicked out of their homes, the destruction of natural areas, the lost of ancient culture, and the disintegration of the country’s traditional community structure.
The Chinese plan for 100 years but live like there’s no tomorrow.
Lianyungang, a coastal city of Jiangsu province, had it’s own pavilion. This is because it will soon become a very important city in China. It’s an end point of one of the three new Silk Road Economic Belts. Basically, in cooperation with the other countries along the path, China is building new highway and rail networks that stretch from China to Europe, overland from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The line from Lianyungang goes to Rotterdam. When I conclude this China phase of my travels next year I will take this route out of the country to Europe.
As I was browsing through the various displays of development, I came along a booth for Xiamen University. What was interesting was that it wasn’t for the Xiamen University in Xiamen, but for the one that was just built in Malaysia. It has been well documented that Chinese developers and real estate investors have been buying up large chunks of property in other countries. The USA, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are, literally, being bought by China. Though the building of universities presents a new way of developing abroad. Chinese universities starting up campuses in other countries seems like a clutch plan to gain access to more land. I am unsure now what the ramifications of this are, but it is something we will see a lot more of.
Though one thing I found very interesting about the CIFIT fair was that it was this massive, international production that attracted people from all over the world, but very little real action seemed to be taking place. Countless times I asked some bored exhibitor the reason why they were at the fair:
“We are here to meet investors,” they would invariably say.
“Have you met any yet?”
Oftentimes, they would then giggle nervously.
I was at that fair for two days and I didn’t see anyone of high status looking at any of the exhibits or browsing through any of the pavilions. In fact, nobody seemed to really be looking at any of it at all. The general public who attended seemed to be far more interested in shopping at the few other commercial fairs that were going on at the same time as the CIFIT. Honestly, I was one of the only visitors that I saw the entire two days I spent looking at the provincial pavilions. Besides this cool tunnel thing that people could walk through and look at themselves in a mirror that Fujian built to (somehow) promote Zhangzhou, hardly anybody was looking at anything.
Apparently, development is so “white rice” in China that not even the Chinese find any interest in it. These provinces put all of this work into coming to Xiamen and building these magnificent displays to showcase their activities and hardly any of the visiting public bother to even look at it. Invariably, the government officials and their entourage had probably received a private showing where they could do all of the required photo-ops — which seems to basically have been what the entire production was for.
The big wigs, the investors, the people this fair was apparently made for were clearly somewhere else. Then I saw one. It was little, bespectacled, white, and around 50 years old. He had VIP printed on his name tag. I gravitated towards him. He was handling a bag of goji berries, trying to get the vendor to tell him what they were in English. Of course, the lady from Ningxia had no clue what he was saying. He glanced at me, she glanced at me, both giving me the “By any chance do you understand what the f’ck this person is saying look.” I did. I told him what the lady was saying about goji berries, I asked her the VIP’s questions. He was smart enough to realize that she was trying to railroad him on the price (or maybe smart enough to pick up on my disgusted reaction when the lady told me how much she wanted). He introduced himself. He was a Belgian diplomat who was working out of Latvia. I asked him what he was doing at the fair.
“Latvia has a sister city with Xiamen.”
“So what does that mean you have to do here?”
“Just enjoy the fair.”
He then scurried away the way big wigs tend to do, without any goji berries.
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