Thursday, November 12, 2009

China International Silk Forum 2009 Part 1.

It was a short trip down in the lift to the second floor for the forum. Everywhere I looked there were flowers - in the entrance halls, swathing the rostrum, in little displays down the side of the room. These were not ordinary flowers, either, to my mind they were great exotic blooms: lilies and great drooping heads that I couldn't identify.

There was also cloth. Every surface was covered in pastel shades of pinks and creams and decorated in flounces and bows: chairs, tables, snuffed out echoes. Voices didn't ring but sank immediately each soft surface.

As in everything I came across in China there were lots of people: people waiting to show me to my place, people helping me with my earphones, translators, white-coated waiters unobtrusively topping up the cups of green teas in front of us with more hot water and some people merely as decoration - young girls (Lisa called them 'beauties') dressed in fine (silk) costumes like sentries guarding the hall. Nothing involved just one person when it could involve three; just as nothing was left bare when it could be draped. China, it seems, is flush with people, fabric, flowers - and pretty much everything else too.

The Forum was bilingual - in Chinese and English - the talks simultaneously translated into the appropriate language to all the delegates. It seemed to be an exhausting business - the translators seemed to work in relays, a new one taking over as a tired one became more hesitant and then stopped; a female voice and then a male one and the same speaker in front of me still talking.

The dress code was 'smart'. This was something I wasn't used to; previously the conferences I have been have been academic and the dress code for them is usually casual to freaky, but this was trade and the men were expected to wear suits and ties. How lucky to be a woman then, and my casual outfit of cargo pants and T shirts, once dressed up with a necklace seemed perfectly acceptable.

The first part of the forum - which was only a day long - seemed to consist of welcome addresses and much anticipation of what the Forum would achieve. First the president of the China Silk Association, Yi Hui, spoke about the two previous forums in 2006 and 2007, and then how the 'world financial tsunami triggered by the US sub-prime crisis' had affected the global silk industry.

There then followed a welcome address from one of the political leaders of Hangzhou City. I found his speech quite interesting since he was obviously more used to speaking without a microphone and spoke very loudly (and somewhat aggressively to my ears, but I expect that is because I am not used to hearing politicians, at least in the flesh). Hangzhou, apparently, is the main production centre and export base of Chinese silk. There is a long history. He then mentioned the impact of the 'global economic financial crisis'. In fact everyone did.

QIAN Youqing, General Secretary of China Silk Association produced a lot of figures very rapidly. At first I tried to write them all down - until a Hong Kong silk merchant next to me pointed out they were in the accompanying handbook. There were also graphs. Until half way through 2007 the silk industry in China was doing very nicely: but then it stuttered a little and then, in October 2008 the financial 'tsunami' hit: mulberry trees were torn down, cocoon production stopped, and silk-reeling industrialists became bankrupt as the price of silk dropped.

I remember seeing the collapse of the Lehman Brothers on the news: the stunned faces of those made redundant, the heads shaking with disbelief, the people walking dazedly around with boxes of belongings. At the time I didn't understand its importance, and I'm not sure I understand it now, but I see its effect in my home town and I heard about its effect here. It seems incredible that the demise of one company should affect the lives of so many, but it does.

Happily, Chinese silk production has recovered since then. Its growth is being deliberately encouraged away from the already-developed east coast by grants and rewards. Since 2006 106 silkworm cocoon bases have been established in the central western and northeastern areas of this vast country. Mulberry plantations have been 'industrialized, upscaled, standardized, clustered, and scientized..' There are now zero-emission factories and waste heat is scrupulously recovered again and again.

Despite this China silk has one big problem - and it is a problem it shares generally with all industry in China. It relies on exportation and so is highly dependent on the outside world. It is like a low land and it needs to build itself flood defences; another wall. The population of China needs to have the confidence to spend. It needs to build its own market. At the moment a large proportion of the population save for their old age or in case they become ill. A good social welfare system would make this unnecessary and they would be free to buy what they wished - a computer, a new driveway to the house or a new dress of silk. These are not my ideas, but things I've read. To me it seems like encouraging China down the same slippery road from which the West has just tumbled. Somehow it seems to me like something is coming from nothing.

Mr. Qian also spoke about how China needed to learn from the West: to improve their research and innovation; to create brands and standardization; and to do all the 'green' things that everyone else should be doing.

It was a long talk, but very interesting, and by the end of it I felt I had a good idea of many things about China and found it quite exciting to hear the same ideas I'd only read about being talked about again by a Chinese industrialist.


Anonymous silk scarves said...

Interesting! First time to hear about this forum. Are you a guest there? do you need an invitation or not?

Sat Nov 14, 03:36:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I was a guest, Silk Scarves, I've had to write about it afterwards because blogger is blocked in China. I found the forum through a google search and then asked if I could come - and they said I'd be welcome. It was very good - I'm going to report the whole thing if you're interested.

Sat Nov 14, 08:02:00 am  

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