WTCA's 2021 CIFTIS Interview

with Anna Ge

Today’s episode of Trade Wins features an interview conducted by Anna Ge, media personality and host of China Plus News regarding the 2021 China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS). During his interview, Robin discusses the common goals of the WTCA and CIFTIS as well as the WTCA’s role in this year’s CIFTIS, which was held in Beijing, China from September 2-7, 2021. Robin also shares the appeal of participating in CIFTIS, the impact of digitalization on service trade, China’s role in the service trade industry, what the WTCA is doing to encourage trade and relationships with China, and his thoughts on China’s trade relationship with the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our conversation included topics such as:

  • China hosting CIFTIS as an in-person event is a demonstration of their confidence in their control of the pandemic and can be used to encourage the recovery of the conference and exhibition industry. 3:54
  • With digital future as one of the themes of CIFTIS this year, Robin shares how the WTCA is introducing an AI-powered corporate matchmaking platform for orchestrating and coordinating virtual events. 6:38
  • China may soon become the largest economy in the world, but still has room for growth and opportunity within the service trade industry. 9:42
  • Robin discusses fostering intercultural understanding and the impact of intercultural relationships on small and medium enterprises. 11:55
  • The COVID-19 pandemic and the current challenges with the global trade infrastructure have highlighted the issue of globalization, presenting China with the opportunity to play a large role in the stability of the economy of the world. 16:43


For the full China Plus News article, click here.

Trade Wins is a podcast designed specifically to be thought-provoking and to provide insights from leading experts to help us navigate today’s changing environment. We aim to contribute to the empowerment of our global membership and their business networks in the world of global trade and investment.


Robin van Puyenbroeck 0:09
Welcome to Trade Wins. I’m Robin van Puyenbroeck, your host. The World Trade Centers Association is a global partner of the China International Fair for Trade in Services or CIFTIS that takes place every year in Beijing. It is the world’s largest gathering for trade in services and this year again took place in-person. The WTCA serves on the CIFTIS vision committee and I had the pleasure of sharing my thoughts with Anna Ge, the conference host. Our conversation was widely shared on various media including China Plus. As one of the international cooperation agencies, we find great value in CIFTIS for our global network of World Trade Centers. Here goes my conversation.

Anna Ge 0:51
As one of the international cooperation agencies of the fair, how does your vision dovetail with the value of the China International Fair for Trade in Services?

Robin van Puyenbroeck 1:00
I firmly believe that we are a great match. We’re an international trade association and our mandate is to facilitate international trade and trade opportunities as well as investment opportunities on a global scale. We have more than 300 World Trade Centers around the world in nearly 100 countries. I like to describe our World Trade Centers as true beehives of economic activity. It’s all about creating an environment where people can come together and try to do business and network in an environment of trust. If you think about the fact that all those World Trade Centers come together in membership groups around agriculture, real estate, and conference and exhibition centers where they share best practices, how to reopen safely, just as an example. If you then think of what our ecosystem is and then look at CIFTIS as the world’s largest comprehensive fair for trade in services covering at least 12 major sectors in trade, CIFTIS has become the leading platform for fretting ideas, connecting supply and demand, and sharing business opportunities you can see where the magic happens. Along with the China Import and Export Fair, the Canton Fair and CIIE, the China International Import Expo with which we also collaborate, CIFTIS is recognized as one of the top three exhibition platforms for China’s reopening. Due to the overlap between CIFTIS coverage and the service offering of our World Trade Centers and their business members, because, let’s not forget, it’s not just about the 300 plus World Trade Centers, it’s about the tens of thousands of companies that they represent. For that reason, we consider CIFTIS an excellent access point to the Chinese market, in this case the service markets, for our World Trade Centers Association global network and also a great platform for the WTCA to support in a partnership of CIFTIS in the facilitation of global trade in services. We have been honored to be part of CIFTIS, to be an official international partner of CIFTIS since 2016. We have attended the CIFTIS expo every year and also served on the vision committee of CIFTIS. In the past 3 consecutive years, we’ve organized forums with our local partners in China. This year, we are going to host an international healthcare development forum with the Beijing Association of Trade in Services and also other partners. We’re very glad to see that CIFTIS has grown over the years in scale, quality and prominence. We see this as a wonderful, wonderful partnership.

Anna Ge 3:37
Despite the impact of the pandemic, there are still over 165 international participants from 108 countries and territories. Why do you think this fair is appealing to these participants? What are their expectations?

Robin van Puyenbroeck 3:54
First of all, I congratulate China for hosting such a large-scale exhibition still in the middle of the pandemic. It’s a good demonstration of the confidence in China of effective control of the pandemic because it is not a sinecure to host such a large-scale, in-person event. I think the large turnout is a testimony to the fact that people need to see people. This is how you forge relationships. I’m not surprised to see that you have such great participation. It’s great. It may be different from previous years as now there is a strong virtual component as well. The same happens with our World Trade Centers. We have many companies through our network that have great interest in investing in China, selling into China, buying from China and conducting trade with China. Now they have an opportunity to participate virtually. We’ve seen tremendous excitement in our network of World Trade Centers and their business partners to participate in the expo. On the expo itself, we have many conference and exhibition centers in our network that are licensees that are World Trade Centers. The conference and exhibition industry is still slowly recovering. The in-person return is ticking up but it’s not where it used to be. The fact that CIFTIS is happening is a boost to the sector and the global development of this sector overall. Many international companies that we work with, and I would like to add that most are small and medium enterprises, consider CIFTIS as an excellent access point to the Chinese service markets. China’s growth in service trade has been quite steady even in the pre-pandemic era. China has now been the second-largest country in trade services for the past 7 years. We are seeing this development continue and tremendous potential for growth of the service sector in China. This is what companies want to be part of — they want to be part of the further growth and developments in China. We’ve also observed the acceleration of a digital transformation across the board during the pandemic. The service sector has been, as you know, particularly hard hit in this regard. We’re talking about tourism, travel and the conference/exhibition industry as well. This year CIFTIS will serve also as a great platform to showcase innovations and new developments in service trade. We’re very excited to join other international colleagues for this year’s program and look forward to working closely with CIFTIS to promote the development of global trade in services.

Anna Ge 6:26
We know the theme of the fair this year is towards digital future and service-driven development. What’s your reflection on the theme? Do you see the urgency of it?

Robin van Puyenbroeck 6:38
That’s a very good question. The theme is very well chosen because we have been propelled, if you like, into the future because of the pandemic. We’ve moved from what we used to call globalization into what I think is more digital globalization. Choosing the theme towards digital future and service-driven development is a great way to summarize that major trend and other trends of global trade in the post-pandemic world. Digitalization is transforming the way we live and do our business. It has created a different work/life balance as well. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen significant acceleration of digital transformation. The pandemic accelerated things greatly so we are entering this new phase of globalization, of digital globalization. This has also brought benefits. We see on one side of the spectrum people have been physically removed, distanced from their communities because of social distancing. On the other hand we see that companies across the board have gained resilience and have even thrived throughout the pandemic because of their successful transformation and adoption of technology and digitization. That applies to our organization as well. We want to lead with technology. Our mission is to bring people together and to facilitate international trade. Therefore, we are now introducing an Artificial Intelligence-powered business-to-business matchmaking platform where we can bring together companies from all around the world across all sectors and industries for effective matchmaking. If we know that people in the thousands can’t necessarily come together on short notice, we can organize virtual events where we have an algorithm to help find the best possible matches for companies around the world. This is what the future will look like. I can only hope that the in-person CIFTIS will boost the momentum of recovery for the global exhibitions industry because many are still struggling and help facilitate trade between China and the rest of the world as well as serve as a platform to demonstrate and stimulate innovations and new technologies. At the end of the day, we have to constantly improve ourselves and innovate. The whole notion of becoming a disrupter or you will be disrupted all has to do with how much we are open to innovating and reflecting inwardly to renew how we do things.

Anna Ge 9:08
Earlier you were talking about your perspective on the future of the international service trade. How do you assess China’s position in this realm because we know that globally about 55% of international trade was linked to service trade in 2019, before the pandemic? Over the past decade, the volume of the service trade has increased by over 50%. The total volume is expected to reach USD $8 trillion in 2025. How do you see China and China’s role in this sector?

Robin van Puyenbroeck 9:42
That is a very good question. I do not have a crystal ball, but service-driven development had gained momentum before the pandemic and continued to accelerate during the pandemic. The growth of service trade has outpaced, as you said rightly, that of commodities and manufacturing. Also, the service component has become more important even in manufacturing, creating added value. It’s become much more difficult now to untangle or separate the service trade from manufacturing or commodity trade. China’s growth in service trade has been very steady in the pre-pandemic era, China being the second-largest country in trade services for the past 7 years, which is very consistent with China’s position in the overall global trade. Let’s not forget that China is now the second-largest economy in the world and will most likely very soon be the largest economy in the world. There is tremendous potential for China in the service trade. According to the World Bank and the OECD, the contribution of services to the overall economy around the world was about 70-74% in developed countries while in China this was about 60%. This gives us an indication of the growth opportunity there is. China has a very important role to play with lots of opportunities. Also, the areas of service tend to be much more value-added and more sustainable so when we look at the environmental footprint, that transformation is also taking place. There are many reasons why growth in the service sector is beneficial. The intertwining of manufacturing with the services and then including the technical components will be there to stay.

Anna Ge 11:29
To be very clear, you’re in the United States. A lot of Chinese companies and American companies are facing challenges nowadays but China and the United States are still very connected by both commodity and service trade links. For your organizations, what have you done to bridge the cross-Pacific businesses, especially during the tough policies from Washington?

Robin van Puyenbroeck 11:55
This is what happens in history and has always been happening when you have large trade blocs. They try to recalibrate and redefine their place. The growth of China in the past couple of decades has disrupted the fact that there were only two trading blocs while now there are three. China is finding its place in that. There has been a bit of a reshuffling happening as we speak. There is, of course, a situation where there is a crisis and disbelief in globalization as a whole, but this is a global phenomenon not unique to Europe or the United States or other parts of the world. They’re asking their representatives to find different solutions. Unfortunately, we see a lot of inward-looking now with political rhetoric and tariffs. Despite all of that, with U.S.-China trade we have two economies that are so entangled and interconnected as the two largest economies that have been for a very long time. It has not made a major impact. The U.S. and China are two of the largest regional networks of the World Trade Centers Association. Together, the United States and China account for about a quarter of our global membership base of World Trade Centers. In the past decades, we’ve worked very closely with both public and private sectors in both countries to promote trade and investment opportunities, and to serve local business communities through our World Trade Centers. We offer and continue to offer a wide range of trade and investment facility services to provide companies with critical information to succeed in cross-Pacific business. A very important component here is the notion that I’m personally very much focused on, of creating a better intercultural understanding. We need to spend more time and pay more attention to understanding one another and understanding different cultures. When our members, our licensees, our world attenders come together globally, this is where that intercultural understanding happens. We’re a beehive of economic activity and people like to operate in an environment of trust. It is in that environment of trust that our members anywhere in the world trust and get to know the World Trade Centers in other places of the world which enhances this cultural understanding. If you look from a people-to-people or business-to-business perspective, the ties are as strong as ever. We need to move on from some of the political rhetoric and instability that it creates. Other examples of things that we’re doing to specifically forge the ties with China and also the understanding of China is our participation in both CIFTIS and CIIE this year. We consider both events excellent access points to the vast Chinese markets, which will help us reach out to our global network and the local business communities will participate in this year’s event, showcasing what Chinese companies can do and how they can connect with others in the world. We’ve also worked closely with partners in both countries to facilitate that mutual understanding. Recently, we co-hosted a webinar with the National Committee on U.S. China Relations. It’s a very prominent organization in the United States and has been around for many decades. They are focused on forging the friendship and the ties between the United States and China. The webinar was on how U.S. small and medium-sized enterprises can benefit from the U.S.-China trade and also how they are impacted by tariffs, for example. Let’s go listen to the businesses themselves, let’s go listen to people who run a business, what is the impact on them and their business due to certain policy decisions that are being made? For the remainder of the year, we’re going to co-host two major forums with the China Council for Promotion of International Trade, CCPIT, which is a demonstration of how much we are trying to work with China. One is going to be the world business leaders’ roundtable during CIFIT in early September. Another one will be a Belt & Road Conference for Chinese-listed companies in mid-December. I had the pleasure of speaking at both forums last year and I very much look forward to doing it again this year and also bringing the same message of focusing on a better intercultural understanding.

Anna Ge 16:16
China International Fair for Trade in Services is one of three of China’s major international exhibition platforms for China’s opening up to the outside world, as you mentioned earlier. Through the Fair, how do you view China’s relationship with the world in terms of economic connection and financial cooperation today with the COVID-19 pandemic posing a grave challenge to all economies?

Robin van Puyenbroeck 16:43
The pandemic certainly is continuing to prove very challenging for many economies around the world. This is also a matter we see. We have an environmental crisis happening. We see hurricanes and flooding and huge fires everywhere. You put that in context with a lot of geopolitical challenges, with the safety of a lot of people, seeing high numbers of refugees around the world, when you add to that the global health crisis and you put all of that together, there are so many moving parts that are challenging economies. The development and rise of China in the past four decades has been truly phenomenal in history. China has lifted over 700 million people from poverty and improved the standard of living of an entire population. China’s policy to open up and also its accession to the World Trade Organization have also played critical roles in this development. China has been a very important player here and we’re very pleased to see that China has made such headway in multilateral and bilateral trade, and investment agreements such as the recent signing of the RCEP and also the completion of the negotiation for the EU-China Investment Agreements last year. China has also expressed interest in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the CPTPP, which would further integrate China’s trade markets with the rest of the world. One thing I would add is that there is also a crisis as it comes to the global trade infrastructure. When we talk about the crisis of globalization, many people around the world feel that the global trade infrastructure is not serving them, and is not benefiting everybody around the world, especially small and medium enterprises. All the large trading blocs in the world, the United States, China and Europe have to focus on stabilizing their trade relationships because for companies and people around the world, its stability is key. Reform of the global trade infrastructure within the WTO context is necessary so that the system can work for everyone and can become more inclusive because that is going to be a very important element for stability. China, as a member of the WTO and as one of the largest trading blocs, has a very important role to play and can take a leadership role in redefining this global trade infrastructure within the WTO context so that the system works for everyone and is inclusive for everyone. With everyone, we need to focus mainly on small and medium enterprises because multinationals know where to go when they need help. Small and medium enterprises are still the bread and butter of the global economy and are a very important contributor to regional and national economies. As many have lost faith in globalization, we have to make sure that people pick that up again and believe that the trade infrastructure is there to benefit them and to support them doing business around the world and not just in their national economy so to speak.

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