Chinese Premier Li Qiang courts investors in Davos but they want more than just promises

DAVOS – In his special address at the opening ceremony of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Chinese Premier Li Qiang went big on his country’s wish to enhance global cooperation in the economic field.

But for many in the audience, the No. 2 in command of the world’s second-largest economy would need to follow up with more details on how Beijing plans to achieve that goal.

They said they wished to see deeper reforms and new policies that would support, for example, the ease of doing business in China.

Government officials, business leaders, experts and observers filled the Congress hall on Jan 16 for Mr Li’s speech, his first as China’s Premier at the annual gathering in the Swiss town. They hoped to get a glimpse of the real state of China’s economy and its prospects, following lacklustre economic growth after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their concerns: problems in China’s property sector, slower export activity, youth unemployment, limited domestic demand and a changing demographic profile due to an ageing society.

Expectations were running high ahead of the meeting after China announced that Mr Li would be leading the delegation for the gathering.

American news site Politico said the size of his delegation – he was reportedly accompanied by 10 state ministers – caused a bit of buzz in Washington, which sent United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to Davos.

Others said Mr Li’s entourage of 140 people was the biggest since 2017, when President Xi Jinping led more than 80 Chinese business leaders to the Forum.

But size apart, it was the timing of Mr Li’s address that mattered.

His visit comes at a time when the world is still caught up in a relatively slow-moving global economy, continuing conflicts in two hot spots, and dismal gains in dealing with the consequences of climate change. There are other risks as well, among them misinformation at a time of elections in several countries.

Mr Li, in his address, attempted to assure the world of China’s growth trajectory, which he said was “making steady progress” on “sound and solid fundamentals”.

The Chinese economy, which grew 5.2 per cent in 2023 – higher than the official target of around 5 per cent – will “continue to provide strong impetus for the world economy”, he added.

“Choosing the Chinese market is not a risk, but an opportunity,” he told the audience.

Illustrating China’s potential in demand and infrastructure development, he noted that the number of people in the middle-income group will double to 800 million in the next 10 years or so, from around 400 million now.

China’s rate of urbanisation is more than 10 percentage points lower than those in the developed world, so there is considerable room for development in areas such as transportation and telecommunication.

He reaffirmed China’s commitment to further opening its economy and fostering a market-oriented and law-based business environment for international cooperation.

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