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Shanghai :  In the mood for business

In Wong Kar-wai’s film, two Shanghainese émigrés in Hong Kong find out that their spouses are having an affair; despite intense attraction, the pair do not embark on a love affair. The first edition of the China International Import Expo (CIIE) was meticulously organised to boost trade in China, particularly in Shanghai. A report from the mouth of the Yangtze river by Jérôme Bloch.

First impressions
From Shanghai, Europe lies to the west while Trump’s America is on the far right. With 23 million inhabitants, immediate impressions are aural rather than visual: thousands of scooters quietly throng the streets, thanks to their electric motors. You have to wander down the alleyways with their small stalls and shops to enjoy the reassuring sound of conversation, worthy of any Italian café on match day. Shanghai has a lot in common with New York: with 131 towers over 150 metres tall, normal-sized buildings look minute; at 632 metres, the Shanghai Tower is the second tallest structure in the world. Its GDP in 2017 exceeded 3 trillion yuan (or $469 billion), a first for a Chinese city, and its container port is the world’s busiest, processing an impressive 20% more in terms of volume than the world’s second busiest port. From here, Trump’s posturing takes on a different perspective and trying to understand Shanghai by spending a few days in the city seems a dizzying challenge.

« From Shanghai, Europe lies to the west while Trump’s America is on the far right.»

Outside Shanghai’s luxury hotels, you’re not likely to come across English-speaking natives. Why not? With a population of 1.4 billion nationals, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to master English, the language of just 360 million native speakers. If you head off the beaten track, away from the expat community and organised tours, you’ll find yourself speaking into telephones which automatically translate your words before listening to the answer in a voice which sounds only slightly more sophisticated than that of Stephen Hawking. Since you’re more likely to be looking for a restaurant than an explanation about quantum physics, that’s just fine. You’ll see that 80-year olds in China are as adept with smartphones as their great-grandchildren but you’ll soon observe that the differences between the Chinese and Europeans and Americans go further than linguistic subtleties. Everyone sees the world through their own, individual kaleidoscope: every aspect has been influenced by history, culture, religion, orthodoxy, education, experience and common heritage. But remember: two people born in different Chinese cities can have as much in common as people from Barcelona and Helsinki or Washington and Mexico! The real challenge here – and, more generally, when it comes to relationships between the East and West – isn’t communicating: instead, understanding and being understood are what’s key. To do that, a little research is required.


Shanghai’s historyAfter the First Opium War, the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 allowed the United Kingdom to establish a concession, quickly followed by the United States and France. The city developed so rapidly that in 1934, the French concession had more inhabitants than Lyon. In 1937, Japan invaded the city, lost the war (watch the film Empire of the Sun for more details) and Mao took control of Shanghai in 1949; it wasn’t until 1976 and Den Xiaoping’s “Open Door” policy that economic growth was restored. Jiang Zemin, Shanghai’s Mayor in 1985, was Party Secretary between 1989 and 2002, which also boosted the city’s importance in terms of trade and finance, thanks to an ambitious investment policy. The former trading post of sepia-toned photos is now the economic epicentre of Asia.


« Despite the enormous size of the Chinese market, a city like Shanghai is resolutely focused on the international market, on which it is hugely dependent.»

The economic context

A few key figures: by the end of 2016, 580 international companies had set up offices in Shanghai. The number of companies receiving foreign investment represents just 2% of the country’s total companies, but foreign investment is responsible for 27% of GDP, 65% of import-export business and 20% of jobs. American companies, including GE, Dupont and Unilever, have 109 research centres. These figures illustrate a paradox: despite the enormous size of the Chinese market, a city like Shanghai is resolutely focused on the international market, on which it is hugely dependent. As President Xi Jinping said in a recent speech, “openness and co-operation will remain essential for human progress”. So it’s no surprise that the city is constantly introducing administrative simplifications to help companies to open offices there. But with the first edition of the CIIE, the city (and the country) entered a new dimension.


Buildings like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles or Mudam in Luxembourg both vie with the artwork they house. What about the National Exhibition and Convention Centre where President Xi Jinping chose to organise the China International Import Expo? It covers some 400,000 square metres and is built in the shape of a flower with 4 petals, with giant hangars over two floors. Tens of thousands of visitors were easily able to make their way round the centre, thanks to its ingenious corridor system. Imagine the Geneva Motor Show, the Paris International Agricultural Show, CES in Las Vegas and the World’s Fair, all in the same place and on the same day. Event exhibitors included Nike, Facebook, Cargolux, Samsung, the European Community and cosmetics companies selling moisturisers: an eclectic mix which was echoed by the crowds of visitors to the event. “What’s the point of this event?” I was eating dim-sum with friends when I heard the most relevant comparison: the CIIE is to Beijing what lobbying is to Washington. The country can count its friends, establish key channels with which to attract companies and spread its message: “A new era, a shared future”. Given the aggressive and sectarian President of the United States, it must be said that such an initiative has the benefit of bringing people together. As an expert in Chinese business recently told me, the country has its own kind of “magic realism”: although you don’t know why some objectives are achieved, they are achieved nevertheless. The first edition of the CIIE was a clear success and a considerable coup. To be continued.

Check the photo gallery of Shanghai here.

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