MWC Shanghai: physical event returns with strong domestic focus

MWC Shanghai: physical event returns with strong domestic focus

The first in-person Mobile World Congress Shanghai since 2021 has wrapped up.

Around 300 companies participated in the three-day trade show, which largely focused on the Chinese domestic telecoms industry. This was a significantly lower number than in 2019, which racked up 550 exhibitors. Meanwhile, this year’s event clocked around 37,000 attendees, according to data from the GSMA.

The vast majority of these were local, with the GSMA noting that under 10% of participants came from overseas. Organisers cited difficulties in procuring Chinese travel visas due to limited issuance; the issue appears to have affected many overseas media outlets, and indeed our editor was unable to procure a visa to attend the event in-person [despite a three-day Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare - Editor].

The Korea Herald reported that sponsors such as Ericsson and Qualcomm were the sole foreign firms in attendance, with South Korea’s Samsung opting to sit out the show - along with several South Korean operators – for the first time since 2017.

The paper quoted a Samsung official as explaining: “We already participated in the flagship annual trade show, MWC Barcelona, in February. Whether to attend the show in Shanghai is our China office’s decision, considering various business conditions there.”

The lack of interest from overseas firms reinforced the idea that the show’s focus is narrowing from Asia to China. While it’s unsurprising that the majority of keynotes were presented in Chinese, attendees reported that most booths offered explanations solely in Chinese, with very little printed material available in other languages.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, the MWC Shanghai has become more of a business-to-business event for Chinese firms,” an unnamed industry official told the Korea Herald on condition of anonymity. “The intensified rivalry between the US and China has also largely affected foreign companies’ participation. Their interest in the event is waning.”

This of course creates space for Chinese firms to push their vision of the future, and operators such as China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom all demonstrated industrial 5G applications as well as outlining the possibilities of hyperconnected 6G-based technology. Huawei underlined the importance of tying network performance to energy efficiency with its "0-bit 0-watt" equipment and pushed its “5GigaGreen” philosophy.

However, many Chinese manufacturers also sat out the event, in particular smartphone makers including Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi. While Huawei, Lenovo, Meizu and ZTE all displayed devices, Honor was notable by its absence, only offering a tease for an upcoming foldable device.

The GSMA talked up the fact that delegates were in attendance from 115 countries and territories, but after a year off – and with international firms and media finding it so difficult to make the trip to China – it seems that this year’s MWC Shanghai was more domestic than global. It remains to be seen if this trajectory continues with next year’s show, scheduled for July 2024.