DELEGATES at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos often treat politicians as rock stars. But the fawning reception given to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, on January 17th was extraordinary.
He was the first Chinese president to attend the annual gathering of the world’s business and political elite. Even an overflow room was packed when he delivered, in his usual dour manner, a speech laced with literary references—rendered through bulky headsets into equally monotone translations. Mr Xi said little that was new, but the audience lapped it up anyway. Here, at a time of global uncertainty and anxiety for capitalists, was the world’s most powerful communist presenting himself as a champion of globalisation and open markets.
Mr Xi (pictured, next to a panda ice-sculpture) did not mention Donald Trump by name, nor even America, but his message was clear. “No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war,” he said, in a swipe at Mr Trump who has threatened, among other mercantilist acts, to slap heavy tariffs on Chinese goods. Mr Xi likened protectionism to “locking oneself in a dark room”, a phrase that delegates repeated with delight. His words seemed comforting to many of them after a year of political surprises, not least in America and Britain. Mr Xi quoted from Dickens to describe a “world of contradictions”, as he put it. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he said. Many foreign businesses complain about what they regard as a rise of protectionism in China, too—but no one could accuse Mr Xi of being out of tune with the Davos mood. China, Mr Xi assured delegates, “will keep its door wide open and not close it”.
The Chinese president also portrayed his country as a staunch defender of the environment. He said that sticking to the Paris agreement on climate change, which came into effect last year, was “a responsibility we must assume for future generations”. These, too, were welcome words to many listening: Mr Trump’s threat to reject the pact will make China’s commitment to it all the more crucial. The week of whose inauguration?
The timing of Mr Xi’s trip was fortuitous—according to the Financial Times his aides were working on it before Britain voted to leave the European Union and well before Mr Trump’s election victory. But he must have relished the points that those events enabled him to score at Davos. Mr Xi faces political battles of his own as he prepares for a five-yearly Communist Party congress in the autumn and a reshuffle right after it. He wants to install more of his allies in key positions. Standing tall on the world stage could help (and attending Davos will have reinforced the point to his colleagues that he is in charge of China’s economy, as he clearly is of every other main portfolio).
Mr Xi would have relished the occasion even had the predictions of many in the global elite a year ago proved accurate—that Britain would vote to stay in the EU and that Mr Trump would not win. The forum is one where embarrassing questions about China’s politics are seldom raised openly. Mr Xi could talk airily of China’s openness, with little fear of being asked why he is clamping down on dissent and tightening controls on the internet (last year this newspaper’s website joined the many foreign ones that are blocked). On January 14th China’s most senior judge condemned judicial independence as a “false Western ideal”.
Previously, the highest-ranking Chinese attendees had been prime ministers. In 2016 the vice-president, Li Yuanchao, who ranks lower than the prime minister in the party hierarchy, led the team. So why has Mr Xi waited until his fifth year as president to turn up? He may well have winced at the thought of doing so last year, when discussions were dominated by questions about China’s management of its slowing economy in the wake of a stockmarket crash and a sudden devaluation of the yuan. Many analysts still worry about China’s economy (not least its growing debt), but the West’s problems have loomed larger over the Swiss Alps this week.
And for all his uplifting talk, Mr Xi shows no signs of wanting to take over as the world’s chief troubleshooter, even if Mr Trump shuns that role. Mr Xi is preoccupied with managing affairs at home and asserting control in seas nearby (see article). “Nothing is perfect in the world,” the new Davos man sagely informed the delegates. But he is unlikely to take the lead in making the world a better place.