The Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs issued a joint “Notice on strictly controlling the organizing of international conferences in China” 关于严格控制在华举办国际会议的通知, the Zhongguo Caijingbao reported. The Notice states that international conferences must not be agreed on without prior approval by both central authorities and a ministry or province, and those that have “unclear effectiveness” should not be held at all. If the conferences concern domestic matters, they must first be approved as domestic conferences. The scale of conferences should be limited, the “mistake of ‘the bigger the better'” should be avoided, and conferences with more than 100 participants should preferably not be organised. Organisers may not “wantonly” (i.e. without permission from above) advertise the participation of state and Party leaders or invite “important” foreign guests, and should not compete with each other. Budgets must be approved in advance, and “no free services may be offered” beyond the conference programme. In particular, there should be no gifts, souvenirs, or sightseeing. The level of accommodation should also be “strictly controlled.”
Although this new order can certainly be used to limit conferences on topics that someone might find “sensitive,” the main objective seems to be to limit spending intended to impress foreigners. Many reports note how impressed African delegations tend to be with their treatment in China, which invariably includes a tour of the country, good hotels, and banquets.
Of course, so are many Western delegations. The International Congress of Ethnologists and Social Anthropologists, which was first abruptly cancelled in 2008 (the Olympic year, when someone may have found topics related to ethnicity “sensitive”), then held in Kunming in 2009, was touted by the organisers as the largest anthropology congress in the world. The costs appeared enormous: half of the city’s police was seconded to the location, and as one happy recipient told me, any foreign participant who knew which office to go to could receive some pocket money. The phrasing of this new notice suggests that such costs are not necessarily planned, but often claimed by organisers from the central budget after commitments have already been made.