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The elephant in the room at tech's biggest show? The trade war with China

China is a top international market for CES, but this year, Chinese companies are taking a more subdued approach.
Image: An attendee takes a photograph before the Nvidia Corp. event at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 6, 2019.
An attendee takes a photograph before the Nvidia Corp. event at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 6, 2019.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Chinese technology companies have long been the talk of the Consumer Electronics Show, an annual showcase of new ideas and products, sending executives to deliver keynote speeches and throw flashy events to show off their new products.

But this year, amid a trade war, national security concerns about smartphone makers Huawei and ZTE, and the arrest of a Huawei executive in Canada on behalf of the United States, Chinese companies appear to be taking a more measured approach at CES.

Last year, Richard Yu, Huawei’s consumer devices chief, delivered a keynote at CES. No Chinese executives are on the schedule to deliver keynote addresses at the conference this week in Las Vegas. The South China Morning Post reported there are 20 percent fewer exhibitors from China at CES this year; however, event organizers would not confirm the reported decline in attendance.

Kevin Wu, an overseas marketing manager with ForwardX Robotics, a Beijing-based company that makes a robotic suitcase capable of following its owner, was one of the Chinese representatives present at CES Unveiled, the show’s kickoff event, on Sunday night. He said the trade war has added an extra layer of complexity to the company's U.S. ambitions.

“We did already have a talk with customs about all of the fees involved. There is a raise, but we will try to keep our product price low for consumers to make it as consumer friendly as possible,” he said. “I would say the trade war problem probably isn’t too big of an issue for us, but it is a much bigger issue for big companies that do a lot of imports and exports.”

Meanwhile, other exhibitors from previous years decided to sit out CES 2019 — like Alibix, an educational robot maker that attended CES last year, but decided to skip this year’s show over tariff concerns, according to the South China Morning Post.

Sarah Brown, senior manager of event communications for the Consumer Technology Association, the group that operates CES, said China continues to be a “top international market” at the show and accounts for “13 to 14 percent of total show floor space,” which she said was “roughly equal” to last year.

The difference this year is that the show has bigger spaces for larger companies, and “slightly less space for smaller exhibitors,” she said.

Brown added that there has been “notable growth” from large companies, including Alibaba, Baidu, Byton, Haier and Lenovo.

This year, CES is expected to draw a crowd of more than 180,000 attendees, with one-third traveling from somewhere outside of the United States. Among them will be 4,400 companies exhibiting their products and hoping to impress investors, analysts and media.