Chinese firms signed import deals worth more than US$57.8 billion during the first China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, according to official data.
But while the event, which closed on Saturday, has been widely touted by Beijing as a symbol of its willingness to further open the economy, sceptics questioned whether the figures really told the true story.
Business figures said many of the deals unveiled at the event had been agreed well in advance and its highly controlled, top-down nature is unlikely address key complaints made by Chinese trade partners about state interference and unfair competition.
Before the event, the Chinese government urged domestic firms to land more deals, mobilising 60,000 companies to buy imported goods, and sought to play the role of matchmaker between importers and foreign firms.
A press release on Saturday said the import deals agreed during the event included US$16.5 billion in the smart manufacturing sector, US$4.3 billion for consumer electronics and home appliances, US$12 billion in automotive products, US$3.4 billion in consumer goods, US$12.7 billion in food and agricultural products, and US$3.2 billion in services.
But some of those involved suggested that those eye-catching numbers may have been inflated.
Adam Dunnett, secretary general of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said that deals signed before the opening of CIIE would only be announced at the event to ensure it got full exposure.
In one of the event’s major set pieces a joint venture between state-owned FAW Group and Volkswagen signed what appeared to a be a meaty deal with the car maker’s German parent company to ship almost US$9 billion worth of cars and parts next year.
But Reuters reported that two sources close to the company and its FAW-Volkswagen tie-up had said that the deal would have gone ahead anyway.
FAW-Volkswagen did not have an immediate comment.
Companies and institutions controlled by local governments were encouraged to sign as many deals as possible during the six-day show starting on Monday, according to two local buyers and one American exhibitor dealing with health care businesses.
The business figures said the government wanted to use the event to hone its image as a powerful global buyer, but local firms had been encouraged to pre-sign deals before the CIIE but were asked not announce the deals before the event so that the contract values could be bundled with those signed during the week to dress up the overall numbers.
Despite the scale of the event, some of the delegates attending the event as members of local “trade groups” were actually working for Chinese exporters rather than importers.
Cecily Hu, who works for an export company in the eastern city of Wenzhou said the local commerce authority had been mobilising companies to join the event for six months.
“Although our business has been focused on exports of wood to Australia and Canada, I guess it not a bad idea to get a taste of this, and maybe we could expand to export business in future,” she said.
On Thursday afternoon, a press conference planned by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission to announce the achievements of delegates from firms owned by the Chinese government was cancelled with no reason given.
Reporters from the South China Morning Post were denied access to several events, including one hosted by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) in which the state-owned nuclear power giant met its global suppliers to discuss the potential orders in future.
Details of the conference were announced on the events official website and it was listed as being open to journalists.
But a CNNC press officer said that only invited media members were being granted access due to the “sensitivity of the issues that are discussed.”
Questions also remain about how far the event would benefit small businesses and ordinary individuals.
Wang Xuan, a 28-year-old Shanghai taxi driver said he was excited that the event was being held in the city, but questioned whether he would be able to enjoy any of the high-end imports it promised to bring.
He said competition from online ride-sharing apps such as Didi was making life for him and other licensed drivers more difficult and he needed to work two hours longer each day to make up for the lost income.
“Even if I work for 14 hours a day and give up my rest during weekends, my monthly income stays the same at around 8,000 yuan (US$1,150). I need to pay the rent, so only a little is left for me to enjoy life,” he said.
During the opening ceremony on Monday, President Xi Jinping promised to open China’s economy to the outside world, promising to lower import tariffs and broaden market access. He also voiced support for economic globalisation amid the ongoing trade war with the US.
He also predicted that China’s imports would reach US$30 trillion over the next 15 years, while its service purchases would reach US$10 trillion in the same period.
China is also planning to make the expo and annual event, with the second one to be held in Shanghai between November 5 and 10 next year.