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China battles 'unfair' trader image with import expo
[SHANGHAI] President Xi Jinping opens a huge Shanghai import fair next week at which armies of Chinese companies will shop for billions of dollars in foreign goods as China seeks to counter charges that its markets aren't open.
But not everyone is buying it.
China's trade war adversary, the United States, is pointedly snubbing a gathering that will draw several overseas leaders, and foreign business figures privately dismiss it as a diversion that allows China to delay lifting barriers that protect its markets.
It remains unknown whether Xi will use the China International Import Expo to announce new reforms, but Beijing insists the event already shows its willingness to reduce the surpluses it enjoys with trading partners.
Mr Xi has called it "no ordinary exhibition" and a sign of China "actively opening up markets".
But the November 5-10 expo also sends another signal: as China pivots from an exports-based economy toward one based on the consumer buying power of its 1.4 billion people, other countries will need to play ball if they want a piece of that action.
"It's China saying 'we are an increasingly important import market, and you're welcome to deal with us," said Gary Liu, president of the China Financial Reform Institute.
"But if you want to start a trade war, then we can just trade with other countries."
Organisers say more than 3,000 foreign companies from 130 countries will come, including General Motors, Ford, Microsoft, Samsung, Walmart, Tesla, and Foxconn.
Even tech giants Facebook and Google are signed up. Facebook is blocked in China, while Google pulled out years ago over censorship and cyber-attacks, but both are seen as eyeing new ways into the giant market.
With the all-powerful Xi personally touting the expo, foreign business and diplomatic sources told AFP that China has aggressively recruited attendees, with some saying they are participating largely to please their hosts.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates will join a business forum, but the touchy optics of attending a China import expo amid trade tension means few big-name American CEOs are confirmed, and most major companies contacted by AFP declined detailed comment.
There are no plans for a "high-level" American government presence, the US embassy said.
An embassy spokesman instead called for concrete Chinese steps to "level the playing field" for US companies.
Foreign government and business groups have long complained over preferential treatment for Chinese firms, market access barriers, restrictive red tape, inadequate intellectual property protection and forced technology transfer - issues US President Donald Trump has seized upon.
"China needs to make the necessary reforms to end its unfair trade practices that are harming the world economy," the embassy spokesman told AFP.
That prompted a retort from China's foreign ministry, which said that snubbing the expo while asking for market access was "extremely contradictory and hard to understand".
China, meanwhile, has corralled thousands of businesses nationwide into "buying alliances", with organisers and state media playing up expectations for headline-grabbing deals.
Shanghai's "buying alliance" alone will include more than 18,000 companies armed with 12 billion yuan (S$2.35 billion) of "intended" spending, an official with the city's alliance told AFP.
Jacob Parker, who heads the Beijing office of the US-China Business Council - which represents US companies doing business in China - said the expo could help some companies improve their networking and create more business.
"There is nothing negative about the expo," Mr Parker said.
But from the standpoint of reducing trade barriers, "I don't know if it's meant to be a means to that end", he added.
"We would certainly appreciate any announcements (about market reforms) next week, but when I talk to our members, the sense is that we have heard a lot of promises to date, but we need to see measurable progress on that front."