Listening to lengthy speeches by Chinese leaders used to be a sleep-inducing affair, particularly for foreign audiences. The speakers tended to regurgitate large sections of government policies, mixed with grand slogans and loads of statistics, and to only occasionally lighten things up with one or two Chinese idioms.
Unlike his predecessors, President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) appears to have employed much better speech-writers, not only to showcase his penchant for the folksy, but to cater to his audience – particularly those from overseas – with historical references, memorable quotes and metaphors long favoured by Western politicians to attract public attention and spice up news reports.
The latest example of this is Xi’s keynote speech on Tuesday at the annual Davos meeting of political and business leaders, the first by a Chinese president and arguably one of the best speeches he has given to the outside world, both in style and substance. Eschewing bold rhetoric and slogans, Xi went in to bat for globalisation and urged the assembled masters of the economic universe to reject trade wars and protectionism in an impressively delivered 50-minute speech sprinkled with traditional Chinese sayings, sound bites, and quotes from Charles Dickens and the founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant. Quoting Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – Xi acknowledged a world of contradictions amid mounting uncertainties.
He forcefully criticised the populist, protectionist push championed by Donald Trump and other Western leaders, comparing the global economy to the big ocean one can’t escape.
“Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air,” Xi said.
“No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war,” he added to applause.
Judging by the ensuing overseas media coverage, Xi’s speech went down very well, as he portrayed China as a responsible and responsive champion of economic globalisation and guardian of the international order.
The speech’s timing could not have been better, ahead of Trump’s swearing-in as president of the world’s largest economy on Friday and on the same day as Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May gave her detailed plan for one of the world’s oldest capitalist economies to exit the European Union.
And it was no mere coincidence that on the same day the Chinese government announced more measures to attract foreign investment, promising easier access and a better environment.
Xinhua reported that the government would ease restrictions on foreign banks, brokerages, insurers, futures companies and other industries seeking to do business in China. Details were vague, but the announcement was clearly aimed at reinforcing Xi’s message that China wants to be more open to foreign direct investment and trade.
While that announcement is encouraging, it is also a reminder that, as China tries to seize the role of leader on free trade and investment, it still has its own uphill battle to make investors, foreign or domestic, feel more welcome domestically.
Indeed, investors’ confidence in the Chinese economy has taken a hit in the past few years because of the frequent heavy-handed government interventions in the stock markets, limited access and unclear regulations.
Back in November 2013, the mainland leadership approved an ambitious blueprint for reform measures, and promised to let market forces play a “decisive” role in the economy.
More than three years have passed but progress has been limited, to say the least. Foreign investors have made louder complaints about rising protectionism, while private Chinese businessmen have made little headway in gaining entry into lucrative industries dominated by the state-owned enterprises.
The latest survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, released last week, confirmed the trend. According to the survey, a majority of the respondents said they “feel foreign companies are less welcome in China than in the past” and more than 60 per cent said they had no confidence in China’s promises of opening its market further.
Meanwhile, falling private investment has become another source of concern about the health of the Chinese economy, as the private sector contributes to more than 60 per cent of China’s gross domestic product and provides more than 80 per cent of jobs.
Just as Xi said in his Davos speech, China once had doubts about economic globalisation and was not sure if it should join the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
But joining the WTO has proved to be the treasure cave found by Ali Baba in Arabian Nights, prompting China to push radical economic reforms, and propelling it to its place as the world’s second-largest economy.
As China basks in the glory of seizing a world-leading role in charting the course of economic globalisation, hopefully that seizure will put more pressure on the central government to match words with concrete actions to bring the country’s opening up and reforms to a new level. ■
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper