by Stefania Fumo
ROME, Nov. 3 (Xinhua) -- Italian companies are heading to Shanghai for the first China International Import Expo (CIIE) trade fair with high expectations, trade representatives have said.
The CIIE, which will run from Nov. 5 to Nov. 10, was first announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May 2017 in a bid to give firm support to trade liberalization and economic globalization and actively open the Chinese market to the world.
"Our expectations are to develop relationships with Chinese importers and distributors, while service companies aim to meet Chinese operators and develop joint projects," Marco Bettin, the director of operations of the Italy-China Foundation and secretary-general of the Italy-China Chamber of Commerce, told Xinhua.
Along with the Italian Association of Foreign Trade (AICE), these two bodies are acting upon request from China's Ministry of Commerce as the main intermediary agents for Italian small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs) and the CIIE.
"There will be hundreds of thousands of Chinese importers from all over China," Bettin added, describing the CIIE as "a huge opportunity" and "an absolutely privileged point of departure" for Italian SMEs.
This is important because China's growing middle class is spread across thousands of urban centers: while multinationals concentrate their business in China's 40 largest cities (so-called first- and second-tier cities), the country has over 600 third- and fourth-tier cities and thousands of fifth- and sixth-tier cities, according to the 2018 report on China by CeSIF, a think tank of the Italy-China Foundation.
For example, China has more than 140 cities with over one million inhabitants, compared to 17 such cities in the European Union (EU), 15 in Russia, and 9 in the United States.
This makes China an ideal destination with "enormous potential of a market that is still to be engaged" for foreign companies, according to the CeSIF report.
From a marketing standpoint, in 2005, a company had to be present in 60 Chinese cities to reach 80 percent of the Chinese middle class. This number grew to 160 cities by 2014 and is projected to increase to more than 200 cities by 2020, the report said.
"This extends the potential market for consumer goods by an enormous amount," said the CeSIF report.
By the same token, this also means that exporters face new challenges "in terms of knowledge of the market, the products they offer, distribution, and competition."
According to Bettin, about 18 Italian SMEs from three main sectors including fashion, food and wine, and services will participate in the CIIE, which represents "an extremely important opportunity for them to do market research."
"It will be a chance for our SMEs to experience direct contact with China and to identify the market potential there," said Bettin, adding that "if this first edition goes well, we expect to bring many more Italian companies to the next edition, and we hope that the CIIE will become a reference point for our SMEs in years to come."
"The Chinese market is essential for Italy's companies, no matter how big or small they are," Bettin said.
Based on final 2017 data from China's General Administration of Customs cited by the CeSIF report, Chinese exports to the EU totalled 372.04 billion U.S. dollars, marking a 9.7-percent increase over the previous year, while EU exports to China increased 17.7 percent, reaching 244.87 billion U.S. dollars.
In the same year, Italy imported Chinese goods worth 29.17 billion U.S. dollars, increasing 10.5 percent over 2016, and exported goods worth 20.42 billion U.S. dollars, an increase of 22.2 percent, a record high since 2014.
This was also the best growth rate among all the EU countries and the ninth highest on a global level, outstripping France, Britain, the Netherlands and Germany, according to CeSIF.
The CIIE is hosted by China's Ministry of Commerce and the Shanghai municipal government, in partnership with the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.