ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailMenu BurgerPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon SearchSite TitleTitle ChevronIcon Twitter
Opinion

Xi Jinping's missed chance to offer a vision for reform

Little new in what had been billed as a landmark speech

Most of the pledges offered by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his speech at the Boao Forum for Asia had been made before.   © Reuters

With tensions escalating between China and the U.S., all eyes were on President Xi Jinping on Tuesday morning as he addressed the Boao Forum, China's annual gathering of the global great and the good from business and politics.

Judging from the trading day in Asia, investors appeared to like what they heard. All major Asian markets finished the day in positive territory, with the CSI300, the main benchmark of Chinese large cap stocks, closing up 1.9%.

But it is debatable whether Xi's words really pushed markets up. Expectations were high that the speech would be a landmark moment coming 40 years after predecessor Deng Xiaoping launched China's reform and opening process.

Liu He, Xi's right-hand man, had told attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in February, that they should expect surprises in terms of a faster and broader opening of a range of sectors to foreign investors. In anticipation, Xi's own speech was carried live on major global business television networks.

In the end, Xi did not say much that was new. He said import tariffs on autoparts would be reduced and that rules on carmaking joint ventures would be loosened. He made a vague promise to open free trade ports; Hainan Island, the home of the Boao Forum, could possibly be one of the first beneficiaries.

Most other pledges however were ones that investors have heard a number of times before. Promises to allow higher foreign ownership of financial companies were restated. Xi said China would seek to import more and better protect intellectual property and that Beijing does not seek to maintain a trade surplus.

There were nice words of course about win-win cooperation and how China is a supporter of the current global trade environment and that it is enhancing it with its Belt and Road Initiative. There was predictably an early call in the speech for the audience to avoid a "cold war mentality," a phrase beloved by both the Russians and the Chinese for responding to Western criticism.

But after years of frustration, investors are keen for real action and change, not more feel good slogans. Business sentiment has been turning against China as foreigners have come under what they see as increasing unfair pressure.

U.S. President Donald Trump's populist position on his country's trade deficit with China is symptomatic of an unequal relationship which has been building up for decades. The Chinese and American economies should trade a lot together but while China has grown larger and stronger, the pace of its opening up has been far slower than ever expected.

Xi is the strongest leader China has had in decades. He has consolidated power quicker and more comprehensively than nearly anyone predicted. Nothing big happens in China now without Xi at the center of things.

Xi has shown he wants to build a strong, authoritarian China with the Communist Party and himself on top of it all. He will be doing nothing to weaken that dream by bending to the wishes of foreign business.

For those claiming that his accumulation of power is for the purpose of driving through greater reforms, there was no sign of this at Boao. Xi had an opportunity to live up to his own words of reform, but we heard little more than motherhood statements.

Global leadership is not just parroting more of the same. It does not follow that a lack of American global leadership under Trump means that the next largest economy will just take over.

Maybe there really are bold new programs in the works but why not take the chance at Boao to announce them? Caution, control and centralization are the keywords for Xi's China. None of that drives an economy into new areas nor do they really drive markets. Xi may like to see a sea of green across stock market screens but he is not giving a real spark to make that happen.

Fraser Howie is co-author of "Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China's Extraordinary Rise." He has worked in China's capital markets since 1992.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Get Unlimited access

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world
.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends January 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to the Nikkei Asian Review has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media