The 2008 China International Petroleum Equipment and Technology Exhibition concluded last Friday in the eastern city of Dongying. 3000 guests from over 40 countries attended and everything appeared to run smoothly. Yet the majority of the foreign delegates were hired just to make the event look "international". Among the 200 fake delegates was Jez Webb, The Peking Order’s energy correspondent.
Most guests had responded to an ad on theBeijinger.com with the curious title: “Free trip to Shandong, 200 foreign visitors invited (Be paid)”. We would, depending on our age, receive between 600 and 700 RMB (£60-70) for two days “work” – two 6 hour bus journeys to and from the city, full board in a luxury hotel and a couple of hours walking round an exhibition, pretending that we were involved in the petroleum industry.
For many, the 6am wake-up call had followed a heavy night in Dongying; free beer was supplied with our meal and 0546, the city’s main nightclub, had put on quite a show for its anticipated guests. So it was with non-renewed energy that most of us trudged around the exhibition hall accepting promotional material from enthusiastic sales representatives - all of whom blissfully unaware that none of us “delegates” knew our casing heads from our choke valves.
The whole city had been lied to. Roads were closed off and we were given police escort to ensure safe passage to and from the hotel. Crowds were addressed by leading provincial government figures as well as foreign leaders. The Dongying Daily - a paper so excited that it printed the front cover in full colour for the few days we were in town - also failed to smell a rat and reported on the success of the "ground-breaking event".
By the time the stall holders began scratching their heads over the fact that they had collected several identical business cards we had already begun the arduous bus ride back to Beijing.
Rather than arrange for real industry people to be flown in from around the world, the event organisers thought that 200 members of Beijing’s otherwise idle foreign population – a mixture of students and casual workers – would be enough to lend the exhibition the international quality it needed.
Can you tell a real delegate from a fake delegate? The bloke in the red helmet couldn’t.
How could the organisers get away with this? After all, a quick chat with any of the overseas “delegates” would have quickly revealed that something was amiss. However, the language and cultural barrier, especially without the help of any investigative reporting of the event, makes for a gullible Dongying. The exhibition was an example of Chinese people using foreign faces to trick other, more ignorant Chinese people. And unfortunately, as long as Chinese people are bad at English and in awe of the foreign face, this type of façade will continue to be put up throughout China.