Chinese firms travel far and wide to retain clients, win new business orders, secure growth

An employee (right) introduces a forklift to visitors during the China Homelife Dubai 2022, a trade fair that provides a sourcing platform for Chinese goods, held in Dubai, the UAE, in December. (SU XIAOPO / XINHUA)

COVID-19 pandemic has made business difficult for Chinese exporters since early 2020. But, displaying resilience and imagination, they are defying physical realm constraints and even chartering flights to travel to all parts of the globe, in order to attend trade shows, build rapport with overseas buyers, retain existing clients and win new business orders. This, in turn, is helping them to embrace customized production, upgrade technologies and ensure growth amid an overall downturn, trade experts said.

This is a far cry from the past when Chinese export-oriented companies used to rely on sales teams, foreign trade agencies and cross-border e-commerce channels to land business orders. Back then, they exported products ranging from clothing and furniture to electric vehicles and construction machinery.

Of course, they still do all that, but a lot has changed since then, and a lot more will change in the coming years, demonstrating that China's trade is critical to the health of the global economy and its recovery from the ravages of the pandemic and geopolitical tensions, trade experts said.

Amid faltering global trade and softening demand for various goods, owners and sales heads of Chinese export-oriented companies in provinces like Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Fujian and Sichuan have turned jet-setters, participating in business events such as the Asia Fashion Fair 2022 Tokyo, the Food Ingredients Europe 2022 in Paris and the China Homelife Dubai 2022. They have been carrying tons of samples, USB flash drives and product brochures to global locations to retain existing clients and secure more business orders.

For instance, Suzhou, an export powerhouse in East China's Jiangsu province, has organized several batches of business groups to visit Japan, France and Germany to secure orders since November. Its delegations to Japan met more than 200 local business clients and sealed 1 billion yuan ($145.4 million) worth of deals during their tours.

Jiaxing in Zhejiang province also confirmed that more than 80 groups of exhibitors will participate in various overseas trade exhibitions by the end of 2023. Five groups had already traveled to overseas destinations in December last year, according to the city government.

The Beijing-based China Council for the Promotion of International Trade announced in December that it had approved 15 out of 35 planned overseas economic and trade exhibition projects to boost exports. These 15 events were scheduled to be held between November last year and February in eight countries, including Germany, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

As for individual companies, rather than wait for the overseas orders to flow in, Rollmax Shutter Component Co Ltd, a Ningbo, Zhejiang province-based roller shutter component manufacturer, secured nearly $1 million worth of orders via a trip by Ding Yandong, its president, to the UAE in early December.

"Some of these deals were sealed on the spot, and some will be further discussed in the coming days after the meetings. The result has exceeded my pre-departure expectations indeed," he said.

An economic and trade delegation, consisting of 23 Yongkang city enterprises, heads to the United Arab Emirates to explore the overseas market, from Yiwu Airport in Zhejiang province in December. (HU XIAOFEI / FOR CHINA DAILY)

This was not the first time that Ding had boarded a chartered flight to a foreign country last year. As part of a tour organized by Ningbo's municipal government in July, he visited Hungary with a group of businesspeople.

"The reason was, a key Hungarian customer wanted to change the supplier and we failed to communicate properly with him through many phone calls and e-mails. So, I decided to fly there to talk with him face-to-face and succeeded in retaining the order," he said. The client's order for door and window accessories had already been partly fulfilled by way of shipment of two containers in September, and the rest of the orders were fulfilled by the end of December.

Sharing a similar experience, Wei Guowen, chairman of Zhejiang Baolinda Toy Manufacturing Co Ltd, a Ningbo-based toymaker, recalled that after he introduced a product, which sold well at domestic market, in Italy, local customers there immediately signed contracts and placed orders.

"Our European customers prefer to see, touch and feel products before placing orders," he said. "Trips to Europe and the United States, which are our key export markets, certainly helped us to get a clear picture of what local consumers want and gain some insights in terms of product design and functions."

Overseas visits combined with industrial upgrade have not only helped expand Ningbo-based exporters' overseas footprint, but boosted the city's foreign trade volume by 7 percent year-on-year to 1.16 trillion yuan between January and November last year, according to Ningbo Customs, a local unit of the General Administration of Customs.

China's foreign trade value rose 8.6 percent year-on-year to 38.34 trillion yuan during the January-November period last year, GAC data showed.

Overseas group tours have helped Chinese exporters stabilize their advantageous trade channels, said Cui Fan, a professor of international trade at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.

This has been borne out by Hunan province, the host venue for the China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo. It sent business delegations to Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar in recent weeks. Similarly, Northeast China's Jilin province organized local entrepreneurs to visit the Republic of Korea to boost exports and promote big-ticket projects with South Korean companies such as LG Chem Ltd, SK Group and Samsung C&T Corp.

"These moves encapsulate the tenacity and swift response of millions of manufacturers in China. After all, not all export deals can be sealed via cross-border e-commerce channels," said Sun Jianjiang, director of Suzhou Bureau of Commerce.

Apart from traveling to developed countries such as Japan, the US, Germany and France to retain existing clients, many business owners have been actively exploring emerging markets, especially signatory countries of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, he said.

In the face of declining demand for goods and inflationary pressure in many countries, it is practical for domestic companies to expand their market presence in other RCEP economies, said Zhou Mi, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation in Beijing.

A batch of cars and excavators for export to the European market are seen at the foreign trade car terminal yard of Taicang Port in Jiangsu province in December. (JI HAIXIN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

He said domestic firms are likely to reap huge benefits in the years ahead as the RCEP agreement, which came into force on Jan 1 last year, delivers increasingly prominent dividends to member economies through tariff concessions and trade facilitation., a platform for Chinese foreign trade enterprises, recently organized a direct purchase event in Malaysia, bringing together Chinese manufacturers and exporters on the one hand and local buyers in Malaysia on the other. This was its third such event since October, including a similar one held in Indonesia.

Wei Yulu, chief representative for Malaysia at Sinopec Lubricant Co Ltd, a subsidiary of State-owned China Petroleum and Chemical Corp, attended the Malaysia event. He said that apart from introducing the company's products and services, participation in commercial events abroad can help Sinopec Lubricant to gain more first-hand market information and better understand the preferences of various clients this year.

Moreover, with China entering a new era of green and innovation-led growth, Chinese manufacturers from many industries have begun to export more high-end products ranging from electric buses to liquefied natural gas carriers and regional passenger jets to global markets.

"Many countries still rely more on non-rail public carriers to transport people. So, the annual growth of exports of such carriers like buses has basically been maintained at around 50 percent over the past several years," said Zhang Hui, vice-president of overseas sales branch at Higer Bus Co Ltd, a bus and truck manufacturer based in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. The company supplied 1,815 buses to Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2021.

While Europe has become a saturated market, fast-growing markets such as India, member economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Latin American countries offer a contrast," he said.

Bus manufacturers in Suzhou saw their export value jump 292 percent year-on-year to $321 million in 2021. They exported 1,726 buses to Israel, Pakistan and the Republic of Korea among others in the first 10 months of last year, data from local Customs showed.

In addition to private companies, State-owned companies, including China Harbour Engineering Co Ltd and China National Machinery Industry Corp, have sent their executives to countries such as Malaysia, Serbia and Indonesia to secure both new business orders and fresh contracts.

As Chinese exporters' robust forays into foreign markets gained momentum, the tone-setting Central Economic Work Conference in mid-December called for accelerating the building of a modern industrial system, achieving breakthroughs in core technologies in key fields and improving the global competitiveness of China's traditional industries.

The meeting vowed that China will actively seek to join high-standard economic and trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement.

China's recent moves to optimize its COVID-19 control policies have also raised market expectations of an economic rebound. Many domestic manufacturers and service providers think this development is welcome as it creates more space for them to further compete with other established rivals in the world, said Gao Lingyun, a researcher at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

The GAC announced in mid-December that it will boost exports of competitive products, support companies to secure orders and expand markets, and realize the full potential of exports to support the economy.

"Bolstered by opening-up measures, China's advantages like market stability and highly efficient production will ensure the country's success in the future industrial chain and in global markets," said Yi Xiaozhun, former deputy director-general of the World Trade Organization.