Last month I flew to Guangzhou for the furniture exhibition. Getting to that point was difficult.
The visa application procedure is tedious and long, and because I did not apply for a visa in my home country as it is not practical, they only gave me a double entry. I have for a few years had a two year multiple entry visa before covid.
That after filling in a 5 page form which even asked for the name of your father and mother. Why is that relevant? With the difficult application process, China doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to welcome foreigners back into China to do business.
At the immigration checkpoint in China my passport was scrutinised intensely, even though they already knew more about me than my wife does, from all the form filling during the visa application. Not a very warm welcome.
What a contrast thereafter. The apartment we stayed at was very efficient and customer service orientated, and the breakfast the following morning was to international standards, apart from the Kenny G music playing in the background.
I remember taking the Guangzhou metro when it first opened, staff standing on platforms would shout instructions at passengers through megaphones, and everyone would be pushing and shoving each other to get onto the train.
Even 3 years ago when I was last on the metro, people would be pushing and cutting the queue to get onto the train first. This time, everyone was lined up and let people get off first. All very civilized. Inside the train there were also no loud conversations, because everyone was on their phone, I am told on Xiao Hong Shu (little red book, a reference to Chairman Mao’s famous text?)
The furniture exhibition was excellent. You no longer had to fill in forms at the entrance, the online registration gave you a QR code which allowed you to go straight in.
What was maybe already the largest exhibition centre in the world had expanded further by another two halls, so you literally walked a half marathon every day to be able to cover the whole show in the 3 1/2 days. I clocked 22,300 steps on the second day.
There were very few visitors from outside of Asia at the show. Some people I spoke to said they couldn’t come because the China visa office gave them an appointment 4 weeks later. Others said they were still concerned about the covid situation and still some others said they did not like the political situation.
The western media and governments have done a good job suggesting that China is a baddie. To some extent it may be deserved because of China’s actions, but perhaps engagement and dialogue would be more helpful rather than provocation from both sides.
Because there were few Westerners, I was treated like a VIP, and could visit any booth I wanted and have people attend to me immediately. A number of companies presented very professionally with world class products. Overall the quality of the booths and products had improved tremendously.
It was great to reconnect with people we have known for years, and meet new potential suppliers. Relationships are still important, and trying to do business online and by phone and videocall can not come close to meeting face to face and really understanding each other. The exhibition allows you to touch and feel and get comfortable, or not as the case may be, with the furniture.
And finally, the food. That has also gone to another level. All the restaurants we visited were excellent and many have introduced a hourglass timer, or in this case a 30 minute timer guaranteeing the food will be served within that time, or you get something for free. We were never close to having the timer run out. And the customer service was again excellent.
But just like before covid, we still had trouble paying. Credit cards are not that widely accepted, wechat pay still does not work if you don’t have a Chinese bank account, and Starbucks reserve had to ask the ground floor Starbucks to bring up RMB 12 in change, because they had no cash upstairs.
China needs to come up with a solution for visitors, because the use of cash is only going to become less common as everyone is encouraged to use digital payments.
My first visit to China was in 1986, and prior to Covid I was going there for work at least 5 times a year. I have never asked my wife to come with me, I told her there are many better places to go. But at the rate that China is modernising, the day may come soon where I will encourage her to come with me.