PM Li leads China's charm offensive in Davos

PM Li leads China's charm offensive in Davos
China's Premier Li Keqiang speaks during The Global Impact of China's Economic Transformation event in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos January 21, 2015.

DAVOS, Switzerland - Determined not to be outdone, China appeared to have pulled out all the stops with a high-powered delegation to the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) this year, led by its Premier Li Keqiang.

In previous years, there had been much chatter among the Davos crowd on the relatively low- key Chinese presence at this annual festival on globalisation, held in this Swiss Alpine resort.

In contrast, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stole the show last year when he delivered his keynote address, in English, to the gathering of top business, political and civil society leaders.

Competition for the affection, mindshare - and ultimately investment dollars - of the Davos elite is intense. This year, for example, India, South Africa and Indonesia have sent teams of ministers and businessmen.

South African President Jacob Zuma is leading a delegation, and there was much buzz that Indonesian President Joko Widodo would make his Davos debut too, until he cancelled at the last minute.

India has set up a pavilion on the main Davos Promenade, projecting its "Make In India" drive urging companies to turn to the labour-rich country as the place to manufacture everything from "satellites to submarines".

So there was much anticipation in the main hall when Premier Li took to the stage on Wednesday evening, given top billing on Day One of the four-day forum.

Mr Li, for his part, seemed keen to charm his audience. He kicked off his speech in folksy fashion, recounting how he had spent some time earlier in the day hiking in the surrounding mountains to experience the "beauty and tranquillity" of Davos.

Davos, he noted, used to be a place where harried city folk came to recharge. This was all the more necessary in today's world, which was far from tranquil, he continued, with threats of terrorism, economic uncertainty and other troubles around the world.

Well aware that many in the audience were anxious about the stalling of economic growth in China - his speech came just days after the country recorded its slowest growth in decades - he assured them that there would be no hard landing, even as the Chinese economy slowed down.

This slower growth reflected a "new normal" for China, he said, adding that this made structural reforms all the more critical.

He pledged that China would press on with liberalising the services sectors, promoting entrepreneurship and innovation, protecting intellectual property rights and deepening capital markets.

"This way, we can shift gears without losing momentum and achieve medium- to high-speed growth, and medium- to high-level development."

Concluding, Mr Li reached for a metaphor designed to appeal to many in this alpine resort - skiing. To ski well, you have to "go at the right speed, keep balance and be courageous", he said.

This was what China planned to do with its economy. In doing so, it would give the world economy, and businesses, a boost, he said.

WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, displaying quick wit, replied by wishing Mr Li "good skiing on the slopes of the Chinese economy", since so much depended on this.

Mr Li's reassuring message was welcomed by participants, given that many were agog over talk of a massive stimulus plan that the European Central Bank (ECB) was set to unveil yesterday afternoon.

Perhaps due to masterly scheduling, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been a leading sceptic of any such effort, addressed the forum just as the ECB was about to make its announcement.

While she spoke on the anodyne subject of global responsibilities in a digital age, the discussion afterwards focused on more immediate concerns such as the ECB's plans and the impact of the elections in Greece this Sunday.

warren@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 23, 2015.
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