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How Should Associations Approach Mainland China?

The country offers much potential as a market for new members and event attendees, but not without some complication. An association-meetings expert in China provides insider perspective.

It’s safe to say that any international association with a plan for long-term growth has its eye on mainland China, home to 1.4 billion people—that's 18 percent of the world's population, and doesn't even include those living in Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan. An association's effort on the mainland could focus on enlisting new members, or on building partnerships with Chinese associations to expand educational opportunities and revenue, like the European Society of Hematology has done in the past few years with good results.

The potential for associations in mainland China is such that MCI Group, a major international association-management and event-coordination firm, recently opened an office in the city of Hangzhou. After Beijing and Shanghai, Hangzhou is the largest mainland Chinese city for international events. Home to e-commerce giant Alibaba, Hangzhou made the International Congress and Convention Association's Top 100 destination list in 2015 and hosted the G20 Summit in 2016. Florence Chua, managing director for MCI Hangzhou, notes her new office is tasked with "attracting, developing, and delivering high-quality experiences for international meetings, as well as supporting the international activation of Chinese brands and companies."

Given the strong presence of government in mainland China's business sector, that second goal—leveraging Chinese organizations—is critical to any effort an association makes to develop its presence there. Here's why: "The implementation in 2017 of the Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations (FNGO) law has made it challenging for international associations to recruit members," Chua says. "Local recruitment activities are not allowed, which means there is a lack of visibility and local relevance for prospects."

What's more, the law imposes a large administrative burden and numerous restrictions on foreign nongovernmental organizations seeking to conduct any on-the-ground activity. To name a few: An organization must gain sponsorship from a high-level government agency; it must gain approval for all activities plus provide post-activity reports; no more than four foreign staffers may work steadily inside the country; and all other hires, including volunteer personnel, must be acquired through approved human resources companies or a Chinese partner organization. Lastly, the law limits foreign NGOs to work in certain approved topic areas, which could pose another challenge for those creating content for association congresses and conventions. As a result, "associations are more concerned about how to navigate the legal requirements for getting approval to organize an international event in mainland China," says Chua.

Finding the Right Approach
On the other hand, Chua points out that "Chinese citizens are not forbidden from joining international associations virtually." This provides associations with an opportunity to use the most popular social-media application in China—and the world. It's called WeChat, and it has more than one billion Chinese accounts as well as more than 100 million non-Chinese accounts. WeChat provides messaging, social media, and electronic-payment services, and also lets users make video calls, play games, order food, and more.

Because there are restrictions on how non-Chinese organizations can use WeChat, this is where a Chinese-based organization—such as a local association or a company connected to the industry an international association serves—might be of help. "WeChat is a highly popular and effective social media engagement platform within China, and if an international association is registered in China with a representative office, it can register its own account" and conduct communications, says Chua. "But WeChat has recently tightened the registration requirements for new accounts, so a local partner might or might not be able to help the association to register a new account." Alternatively, if an association wishes to occasionally secure a mention on the existing WeChat account of a related Chinese association or company, Chua notes that "there is liability to be managed for the account registrant around advertising law" and other regulations.

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From the big-picture perspective, then, "an association should hold a mid- to long-term view for getting onto the WeChat platform," says Chua (pictured, left). "It’s unlikely to be very effective for driving attendance for a one-off event due to the amount of content and frequency required to build engagement."

Short of registering with the Chinese government and having an office there, international associations could seek strategic mentions of an event it will hold in the Asia-Pacific region on the account of a local association or company, in order to drive attendee interest from Chinese professionals. Singapore, Sydney, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong are the top-five event destinations in the region, and "travel and the visa application process is relatively straightforward for Chinese citizens," Chua says. "However, the event organizer should always be aware of political relationships between China and the country hosting the event, as attendance is likely to be affected during sensitive periods. Chinese companies are generally supportive of business travel as long as there is business relevance and value. But if organizers want to attract government or government-affiliated attendees, they should be aware of travel protocols and approval processes."

If there is enough potential benefit for an international association to establish an office in mainland China, then the possibility goes up considerably to host events there that generate strong attendance while coming in at reasonable cost. For international associations without an office that still want to host events in China, MCI Group's Chua suggests they consider the following:

• Does the association have local partners or contacts who can support the FNGO law requirements?
"This is obviously important for getting the necessary approval for organizing an event."

• What is the expected ratio of Chinese attendees to international attendees? "This will help determine which cities to consider using," Chua says. "If the percentage of Chinese attendees is high, then using second-tier cities such as Hangzhou, Chengdu, and Suzhou becomes very attractive in terms of cost and unique cultural offerings."

• Is the association’s industry central to the corporate base or the strategic development of the potential host city? "An alignment here could provide opportunities for additional support by the local government and other local stakeholders."

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