European chamber in China criticises upcoming Shanghai trade fair as 'smoke and mirrors'

By Brenda Goh

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - The European Union Chamber of Commerce on Friday criticised an upcoming trade fair in China as "largely smoke and mirrors" and pushed for more tangible measures to restore business confidence among the European business community.

Shanghai is due to host the China International Import Expo (CIIE) between Nov. 5-10, an annual event launched by President Xi Jinping in 2018 to promote the country's free trade credentials and tackle criticism of its trade surplus with many partners.

Premier Li Qiang is set to address attendees at the event's opening ceremony on Sunday, which is expected to include Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

But the chamber said that contrary to the CIIE's ambitions of boosting China's global imports, China's trade surplus with Europe had grown significantly over the past five years.

"The CIIE was originally intended as a showcase of China’s opening up and reform agenda, but it has proven to be largely smoke and mirrors so far," said Carlo D'Andrea, the chamber's vice president.

"European businesses are becoming disillusioned as symbolic gestures take the place of tangible results needed to restore business confidence," he said.

The fair's organisers did not immediately respond to a request for comment. China has said it is willing to take more European exports in response to complaints from the European Union about the lack of a level playing field in China and the politicization of the business environment.

The EU and China plan a summit by the end of the year. The European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, visited last month, as have several other top EU officials in recent months.

A survey by the chamber last month that received 116 responses from its members found that participation rates had dropped from 42% to 32% since the first CIIE. Those who had opted not to attend this year after attending previously cited the diminishing value of investment and limited policy changes as among their reasons.

Although 59% of the survey's respondents said they benefited from government engagement at the show, only a quarter of attendees closed any business deals at last year's CIIE, significantly lower than in 2018 when half of participants closed deals, the chamber added.

European businesses would like to see the CIIE "move away from the politicization" and focus on the business impact, as well as undertake concrete policy measures to open the market alongside the fair, the chamber added.

More than 60 countries and three international organisations, as well as 289 of the world's top 500 companies, will be participating in CIIE, according to Chinese state media, including firms such as Micron, Nestle and Burberry

Last year, $73.52 billion worth of 'intentional' deals were signed at the fair, up 3.9%.

($1 = 7.3142 Chinese yuan renminbi)

(Reporting by Brenda Goh)