Ping Pong Playing Robots at Xi's Trade Fair: Shanghai Notebook

(Bloomberg) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the International Import Expo in Shanghai on Monday, giving a speech that was long on promises to support globalization and open the economy, but short on detail.

The event, attended by more than 3,000 foreign companies, is part of China’s efforts to boost domestic consumption and re-brand itself as an importer of goods, shifting away from the export-led model that helped spark the trade war with the U.S. Check back here for rolling updates.

While Xi’s address was welcomed by many, it fell flat for others who had hoped for more detail on how China will reduce the barriers to its economy.

Ping Pong Playing Robots at Xi's Trade Fair: Shanghai Notebook

“It seems like there were good statements and good headlines, but what we want are concrete actions and a concrete timetable of reform,” said Carlo Diego D’Andrea, the Shanghai chairman for the European chamber of commerce. “We can’t let the CEOs of European companies in China to set up their businesses on a foundation of hope that reform will come.”

Others were more optimistic, emphasizing the importance of Xi’s message and the Expo itself, even as some U.S. and European executives have snubbed the event.

The speech “gave entrepreneurs like me a lot of confidence,” said Bai Eryun, general manager of Inner Mongolia Erdos International Trade Ltd.,31 which exports woolen products. “Opening up, cooperation and multilateralism are the future.”

Overseas Chinese Bring Alpacas Home

Woolly timetables aside, evidence of China’s growing influence in global trade abounded at the Expo.

Maggie Chen immigrated from Shanghai to Australia in 1988, setting up Product of Australia Trade Pty Ltd in Melbourne. She’s back now at the International Import Expo, looking to expand her alpaca wool product business in China’s massive market. In Australia, her company has about 20 people producing toys and other goods, and it opened a physical store in Shanghai in 2016.

Ping Pong Playing Robots at Xi's Trade Fair: Shanghai Notebook

A few booths away from hers, Warmipura Arte Exportaciones S.A.C. is also selling products ranging from stuffed alpaca toys to slippers made of the animal’s wool. A 50-50 joint venture set up in Peru, the company is solely focused on the Chinese market, according to sales manager Liu Jiao’e. The Chinese cofounder established the firm there in 2016, hiring local families to make handicrafts and then exporting them to China. Sales have doubled to 1 million yuan ($145,000) in two years, Liu said, and have the potential to grow.

Robot Ping-Pong

In 1971, the visit of an American table-tennis team to China began the normalization of relations between the cold war adversaries.

Now, Japan’s Omron Corp. is turning to the same tool, using a ping-pong playing robot to demonstrate its sensors and artificial intelligence technology to Chinese customers at the import expo in Shanghai. The cameras constantly analyze the human opponent’s actions and can predict when the player is preparing a "smash," even before paddle hits ball, according to engineer Satoshi Yase. The technology aims to understand human intentions, he said.

Ping Pong Playing Robots at Xi's Trade Fair: Shanghai Notebook

That can be useful on factory floors, improving worker productivity through automation, PR spokeswoman Linda Zhu. The technology in the robot is already being used in China, especially in the semiconductor and car sectors, she said.

Robotics and automated production are sectors where China is attempting to develop world-class industry as part of its "Made in China 2025" plan. So for Omron, what is an attractive market now could disappear in a few years, as Chinese companies look to replace imported technology. But at least for now, the company has a monopoly on the ping-pong robot sector.

More on the winners and loses from "Made in China 2025"

Ping Pong Playing Robots at Xi's Trade Fair: Shanghai Notebook

We’ll be taking you through all the sights and interesting nuggets from the fair over the next few days, digging into topics like the battle for the Chinese consumer, the struggle to capture customers in the world’s largest market by population, and how the big shifts that are taking place amid Trump’s trade war are affecting ordinary companies trying to do business.

Some more reporting from the expo

Japan All Out

Judging by the number of companies attending the China International Import Expo this week in Shanghai, Japan sees plenty of opportunities to expand exports.
There’s over 400 firms from Japan exhibiting their wares at the show, more than double the number from South Korea, which is in second place. Companies are aiming to take advantage of the growing middle-class in China, showing off goods like a Japanese energy drink that claims to preserve collagen proteins, or a Korean cooking machine.

Ping Pong Playing Robots at Xi's Trade Fair: Shanghai Notebook

Also included in the list of "hot products" were frozen Canadian wild snow crabs, Ukrainian breakfast oatmeal and Japanese pearl necklaces.

And while Chinese imports of U.S. soybeans have collapsed due to the trade war, the U.S. Soybean Export Council has a display promoting sustainable methods of soybean production and techniques for circulating water in fish-farming ponds.

Anticipation Builds

Ping Pong Playing Robots at Xi's Trade Fair: Shanghai Notebook

The expo proper doesn’t open until 3:30 p.m. today, as President Xi Jinping is touring the site before that. There was considerable anticipation ahead of his speech in the morning, at which he took a veiled swipe at U.S. President Donald Trump, but didn’t announce any detailed measures to liberalize imports.
Read More: China’s New Love of Imports Leaves Long Road to Trade Balance

Meanwhile, some bored reporters trying to use the Internet at the massive National Convention and Exhibition Center have been handed a sign of the times: Foreign nationals were given a nifty VPN that allows them to circumvent China’s web censorship; Chinese nationals were not.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Jing Yang de Morel in Shanghai at jyang543@bloomberg.net;Matthew Boesler in Beijing at mboesler1@bloomberg.net;Miao Han in Beijing at mhan22@bloomberg.net;Natalie Lung in Hong Kong at flung6@bloomberg.net;Yinan Zhao in Beijing at yzhao300@bloomberg.net

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With assistance from Editorial Board