At­ten­dance is Fu­tile

NewsChina - - ESSAY - By Frank Hersey

Work­ing for a Chi­nese com­pany pro­vides just as rich a seam of un­ex­pected ex­pe­ri­ences as any other as­pect of life here. One workre­lated 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.

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

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