At the centre of the country exhibition hall at Shanghai’s high-profile import fair is a booth promoting a tiny country: El Salvador, China’s newest diplomatic ally.
While national exhibitions by major powers the United States and Japan were nowhere to be found, the Central American nation was placed by the organisers in the best position to sell itself to Chinese businessmen attending the six-day China International Import Expo.
“Where is this country?” dozens of Chinese passers-by stopped and asked as they saw the eye-catching display in the middle of the venue, surrounded by Beijing’s traditional allies with fancier and bigger booths from Pakistan, Russia, South Africa and Indonesia.
“We are in Central America, and we produce very good coffee and sugar,” the Salvadoran man said as he offered free coffee to visitors.
The country exhibition, one of the many halls at the expo, attracted 80 countries to set up government-arranged booths to display their “signature products” in the six-day fair, which ends on Saturday.
The expo is China’s latest attempt to convince global partners it will further open up its economy and import more products from around the world despite the simmering trade war with the US.
While national representation was missing from Japan and the US, their private sectors took first and third place respectively, in terms of the number of exhibitors among the 130 countries which attended.
Next to El Salvador’s booth was its Caribbean neighbour Dominican Republic. Both countries shifted their diplomatic alliance from the self-ruled island of Taiwan to China this year.
El Salvador, which made the switch in August, has also recently received US$150 million in aid from China.
“We are very grateful that China has organised this booth for us in just a few weeks’ time, because we have only confirmed joining after the official ties were made in August, Sigfrido Reyes, president of El Salvador’s export and investment promotion agency, said.
“I think this good position of the booth shows that China is friendly to us. The diplomatic switch was a timely decision, we are expecting more trade with China.”
China’s closest allies have shown their eagerness to attract business opportunities from the 400,000 purchasing agents who were expected by the Chinese government to attend the fair.
Uzbekistan’s booth is designed as a fancy mosque, Pakistan’s has a full wall of LED screens showing promotional videos, and the Philippines’ incorporated large-scale dance shows and illuminations.
Beijing has seized every opportunity at the country exhibition to display its political stance.
Inside China’s own national booth, there are three small sections introducing the latest developments in their two special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau, alongside the self-governed Taiwan.
While Hong Kong and Macau have sent their own government information officers to run their displays, Taiwan’s section – named Taiwan relatives” – had no staff from the Taiwanese or mainland governments.
Cross-strait relations have been strained and official communication between Beijing and Taipei cut off in recent years after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen shunned an opportunity to acknowledge the 1992 consensus.
The consensus refers to an understanding that both sides recognise there is only one China, but each can have its own interpretation of what China stands for.
“The 1992 consensus is a very important milestone … Taiwan and the mainland have increasingly close ties and we belong to the same family,” according to the promotional video at the Taiwan display.