orking for a Chinese company provides just as rich a seam of unexpected experiences as any other aspect of life here. One work-related activity that has consistently proved to be an eye-opener is the industry conference. Just as a visit to a national dog show or county fair back in my native UK would throw up a whole host of customs – an England within an England – Chinese conferences are their own microcosms of mystery.
They start early, with much intensity. It’s not unusual for a conference to kick off at 8am in a remote and distant part of town. Real commitment is needed just to arrive and gain entry. One of Beijing’s top venues, the China National Convention Center, is in the Olympic Park. Attendees emerge from the subway station exits with the hall straight ahead but are then faced with two layers of fencing. They have to walk down a road then line up to pass through a gap in the fence and pick their way through a flower bed to walk back up the other side of the road, past the subway exit, to get to the gap in the next fence. At another Beijing venue I have climbed over concrete anti-tank barricades with other attendees.
Then you must line up to go through security, then to register, then to get into the hall. By this point it is perfectly normal to have forgotten what the conference is about.
Business cards are essential. There is no way into a conference without business cards. I’ve been denied entry before when going to a conference so soon into a job I didn’t have any cards. Pretty much redundant in the rest of life due to WeChat, business cards are the one true ID for accessing a conference. At one event I had to provide a photo in advance so facial recognition cameras would automatically swing open the gates upon my arrival. But when I got there I was told they didn’t work with foreign faces (and had to provide business cards instead).
If you’re lucky enough to scale the barricades and get into the main hall for the opening ceremony, you can expect to be in for a genuinely entertaining time. Lasers! Smoke machines! 200dB soundtracks! A video wall will depict the industry, the diversity, the adversity. In front you see a sea of tiny screens as the avid take video of the proceedings. Scantily clad showgirls (even in 2018) will escort the VIPs onto stage to give opening remarks and the keynote speech.
If the conference has been in any way subsidized by the local government, one of the first on stage will be a Party member who will spell out the advantages the area has for steel products, medical textiles, book printing or whatever, before moving on to the area in square meters of the city’s libraries and length in kilometers of new roads.
There may be a dance display by a hundred coordinated robots.
If something is being launched, all the men involved gather on stage with a prop that will dramatize the launch going live. These props, I’ve noticed, follow their own fashions. Displays that activate once all the men simultaneously turn their own keys in a box, have given way to ball-shaped devices, particularly those with plasma rays that reach toward hands making contact with their glass surfaces.
After such initial excitement, people separate into different rooms for specialist talks. Audiences now divide into two groups. The avid conference-goers photographing every slide, nodding at every point. In one conference, the lady next to me was watching a livestream on her phone of an adjoining room while still following the proceedings of our hall. The other group settles in for a good, long sleep.
Conferences are the only places in China where there is no food. There is invariably a small pen selling ludicrously overpriced coffee in paper cups with powdered creamer. I now take my own snacks.
If you’ve been invited by a PR firm, things can be very different. You may be escorted the entire day and any conversation you try to have with a delegate may be intercepted, to the extent that delegates stop answering your questions entirely.
In general, like conferences anywhere, amid all the trappings there are diamonds in the rough. An errant department manager will inadvertently reveal too much; a stall holder will give you your best story that year or someone might just 3D print you a hot, edible Hello Kitty and you remember why you keep coming back.
Then all stalls will invariably pack up two hours before the event is scheduled to end.
An old man I met at a tourism expo in Xi’an had perhaps the best approach. He was carefully selecting reading materials and placing them in various bags. Quite a lot of materials, in fact, on obscure tourist sites. “Are you very interested in these places?” I asked. “No, but this type of paper gets the best price for recycling,” he replied.