SHU Ping

Sculptures of Buddha and Bodhisattva (Guanyin) for export at Canton Trade Fair, Guangzhou, China, 1979. In the last three decades the international fair has expanded its physical quarters with brand new exhibitions halls, its reach with an online component, and its offerings, with an increasing variety and number of Chinese brand name. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The Canton Fair, officially known (until 2007) as the China Export Commodities Fair and afterwards as the China Import and Export Fair, is China’s No. 1 fair. It has the longest history, largest scale and variety of products, largest attendance, and greatest business representation of any such fair in China. It has promoted economic and trade cooperation and technology exchange between China and the world.

To develop China’s exports to capitalist countries, the Chinese government held three export exhibitions in Guangzhou (Canton) from 1954 to 1956. Building on these exhibitions, the first session of the Canton Fair was held in Guangzhou in 1957. Since then two sessions of the fair have been held every year in Guangzhou. One session starts on 15 April, and the other starts on 15 October. From 1957 to 1981 every session lasted a month. From 1982 to 1988 the sessions were shortened to twenty days, and beginning in 1989 they were shortened to fifteen days. Every session was then divided into two phases with a four-day break between 21–24 April and 21–24 October. The Canton Fair’s 104th session, held in October 2008, was arranged in three theme-based phases, allowing for more business participation; the first phase was held from 15–19 October, the second from 24–28 October, and the third from 2–6 November.

In addition to the traditional method of bringing sample products to the fair, the fair now has an online component. Its website, in operation since 1999, has become a platform for international business communication in what can now be called the “Never Ending Canton Fair.”

Since the first session in 1957 China has experienced natural and political disasters, such as the Great Chinese Famine from 1960 to 1962, the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic in 2003, and the Sichuan Province earthquake of May 2008, but the Canton Fair has never been canceled. This is highly unusual in the history of international exhibitions.

The China Export Commodities Fair was renamed the “China Import and Export Fair” (CIEF) at its 101st session on 15 April 2007. The change was part of China’s efforts to improve its imports from trading partners and narrow the trade gap.


The China Foreign Trade Center (CFTC) is in charge of the organization, management, and operation of the Canton Fair. Its predecessor, the Chinese Export Commodities Exhibition Hall, was founded in 1957. It was renamed the “Guangzhou Foreign Trade Center” in 1979, the “China Foreign Trade Center (Guangzhou)” in 1986, the “China Foreign Trade Center (Group)” in 1988, and finally the “China Foreign Trade Center” in 2001. The name changes reflect its institutional reform from a state-owned enterprise under the direct control of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation to a government-sponsored institution that operates independently and has the full responsibility for its profit and loss.

Exhibition Halls

The Liuhua Complex, an exhibition hall established in 1974, hosted each of the Canton Fair sessions until April 2004. Because of the increasing size of the fair, construction began on a new exhibition hall, the Pazhou Complex, which was partly finished and used for the ninety-fifth Canton Fair in April 2004. Since then all of the fairs (including the ninety-sixth Canton Fair in October 2004) have been held simultaneously in the Pazhou Complex and the Liuhua Complex. The Parzhou Complex, completed at the end of 2008, covers an area of 810,000 square meters with a structural area of 1.1 million square meters; it has an indoor exhibition area of 350,000 square meters—enough space for 17,500 exhibition booths—making it the third-largest exhibition hall in the world.

Importance to China’s Economy

The Canton Fair has been the most important channel for Chinese enterprises to enter the international market. In the 1960s and 1970s the proportion of trade done at the Canton Fair, relative to China’s total exports, increased steadily. From 1965 to 1979 the proportion averaged 34 percent, and in 1972 it hit a high of 54 percent. Since China’s opening to the world in 1979 Chinese enterprises have had many more opportunities to enter the international market. The Canton Fair’s relative importance to China’s exports has therefore been decreasing steadily. Since 2003 less than 10 percent of China’s annual exports come from the Canton Fair. But the number of visitors and the business turnover of each session of the fair continued to increase steadily until the 101st session in April 2007, and despite some gradual declines in the following two sessions, statistics for the 104th session in October–November 2008 were better than predicted, especially given the global financial crisis. With the rapid increase in the volume of China’s international trade the Canton Fair, therefore, remains China’s No. 1 fair.

102nd Canton Fair, 2007

The 102nd Canton Fair, which was held 15–30 October 2007, had 189,500 visitors from 213 trading countries and regions, and the total export turnover of that session reached $37.45 billion. The number of visitors decreased by 8.3 percent from the highest level, achieved at the 101st session, but the export figure hit a high with an increase of 2.9 percent over the 101st session in April 2007 and a 10 percent increase over the 100th session a year earlier. Mechanical and electrical products occupied the lion’s share of the deals, and light industrial products occupied second place. Several commodity categories that are undergoing tariff rebate policy adjustments suffered a dip in their transactions. Categories included garments (decreased by 8.8 percent), footwear (decreased by 9.2 percent), toys (decreased by 10.7 percent), and motorcycles (decreased by 30.7 percent).

104th Canton Fair, 2008

The 104th Canton Fair, which was held from 15 October to 6 November, 2008, had 174,562 visitors from several hundred trading countries and regions, and the total export turnover of that session reached $31.55 billion. Although this was a decrease in the number from the previous year, given the downturn presented by the global financial crisis, the result was better than expected. Moreover, at this fair there was an increase in Chinese brands on display, as well as an emphasis on higher technology products. It is clear that China is attempting to move up the technological ladder.

Outlook in the Twenty-First Century

The Canton Fair is a long-standing showcase for products made in China and, increasingly, for foreigners seeking to sell their products in the Chinese market. Its fame comes partly from its long history and partly from China’s increasing importance in world trade. While the fair is a somewhat outdated phenomenon in an age of e-commerce, and there are many other ways now for producers to sell their products, the Canton Fair will continue to be an important forum for international trade in the twenty-first century.

Further Reading

Canton Fair. Retrieved March 20, 2008, from

Canton Fair Online. Retrieved March 20, 2008, from

China Foreign Trade Centre. Retrieved November 13, 2008, from

Official from Ministry of Commerce answers the questions about the renaming of the Canton Fair. (2006, October 15). Retrieved March 20, 2008, from

Prakash, D. (1985, November). The Guangzhou Trade Fair. China Report, 21, 507–511.

Significant Reform of the Canton Fair-Three Phases in 104th session. Retrieved July 31, 2008, from

Zhang Lisheng. (2007, October 31). US$37 export deals sealed at Canton Fair. China Daily. Retrieved March 20, 2008, from

Source: Shu, Ping. (2009). Canton Fair. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 267–270. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Electronic products at Canton Trade Fair, Guangzhou, China, 1979. The 2008 fair emphasized high-tech goods and gadgets, many of them made in China. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Canton Fair (Zh?ngguó Ch?k?u Sh?ngp?n Ji?oyìhuì)|Zh?ngguó Ch?k?u Sh?ngp?n Ji?oyìhuì (Canton Fair)

Download the PDF of this article