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The Stakes are High at China’s 133rd Canton Fair

In less than two weeks, China will host its 133rd Canton Fair, bringing vendors and buyers from across the globe to the country’s largest trade event.

Taking place April 15 through May 5, this spring’s showcase will mark the Fair’s in-person return, with six consecutive events having taken place mostly virtually. It expected to draw more than 30,000 exhibitors to Guangzhou this month, while 35,000 will participate through its 24/7 online platform.

In anticipation of high turnout, the fair will leverage a newly built exhibition space dubbed Area D. The expansion propels the event’s size to a record 1.5 million square meters, up from 1.18 million square meters previously. The space will house 54 specialized exhibition sections for different product categories, from electronics to building materials, household goods, home textiles, furniture, apparel, accessories and more, which will be showcased in three waves due to the volume of vendors and goods. According to Shu Jueting, spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Commerce, the quality of the exhibitors will see a “steady improvement” from previous events.

Canton Fair organizers are ratcheting up marketing campaigns in the lead-up to the event to attract more overseas buyers. Over 40 “trade bridge” matchmaking activities are planned to connect buyers with suppliers, and the Fair will feature the second Pearl River International Trade Forum, a series of almost 400 specialized events for attendees. “The Canton Fair is an important window for China’s opening up and a premium platform of foreign trade, serving as a critical channel for Chinese companies to develop the international market,” the event’s organizers said.

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But as the country and its government gear up for the massive expo, exhibitors are reportedly feeling less than bullish about their sales prospects. Declines in international orders have become a significant impediment to China’s businesses, according to a private Ministry of Commerce survey of 20,000 firms obtained by the South China Morning Post. Vice-trade minister Wang Shouwen called the foreign trade situation “severe and complicated this year,” the outlet reported from Beijing on Tuesday. Wang said the results of the survey were in line with the Ministry’s expectations.

China’s exports rebounded briefly following torturous supply chain slowdowns throughout 2021, growing more than 10 percent year over year to $3.8 trillion during the first eight months of 2022. But volumes have now been declining for months. Last September, Wang said Chinese companies were “reporting falling orders, as the demand from major markets is declining.” In January and February of this year, China’s overall exports fell 6.8 percent from the same period in 2022.

At a press conference last month, Shu said that “many difficulties and challenges still confront China” as “uncertainties in the external environment are on the rise.” Globally, inflation remains high, trade growth is stagnating, “and external attempts to suppress and contain China are escalating,” she claimed, appearing to reference heightening tensions with the U.S. over Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

After weeks of public barbs traded by U.S. and China officials, President Biden announced sanctions against Russia and its accused allies, including persons and groups in and from China, in late February. U.S. Census Bureau data showed that China imports to the U.S. dropped 22 percent from January to February. Imports fell more than 31 percent from the same period a year prior, from $42.2 billion to $30.6 billion in February.

Challenged relationships with key markets will have a marked influence on foreign trade trends this year, Shu said. Most Chinese companies and local governments reported softening external demand as a key issue, and the Ministry of Commerce is now “working with relevant authorities to explore policies to stabilize the size of foreign trade and improve its mix,” Shu said.

Earlier this week, the Ministry announced that it had completed “substantive” follow-up negotiations on a China-Singapore free trade agreement (FTA) upgrade, with the intention of signing a finalized text as soon as possible. Last week, China and Brazil struck an agreement to trade in their own currencies, instead of using the U.S. dollar.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron and an entourage of 60 of the country’s business leaders including the head of Airbus traveled to Beijing on Wednesday for a three-day state visit to meet with President Xi Jinping. Macron reportedly aims to try and stabilize the precarious E.U.-China relationship as the trade deficit between them continues to grow.