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Xi pushes China's new position on global stage

Country's president portrays himself as a champion of free trade and world order at annual Boao forum

To some of the more cynical China watchers, there is a sense that the pledges Mr Xi offered to the Boao Forum for Asia, and the world, may amount to less than they appear.

Boao, China

THE International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief praised his openness. A senior British banker lauded his authoritarian rule. The Philippine president said he loves the man.

President Xi Jinping of China took centre stage at his country's annual Boao Forum for Asia this week to the welcoming arms of many in the global elite. He portrayed himself as a champion of free trade and world order, speaking to a group that included Ban Ki-moon, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, and Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organization, and his words helped move markets around the world.

The forum, held every year on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, has long been a platform for China to portray itself as an economic powerhouse and regional leader.

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But this year's meetings took on an elevated role, as a platform for Beijing, a result of a growing trade dispute between China and the United States. It was an opportunity for Mr Xi to present himself as a foil to US President Donald Trump, who has rejected globalisation and focused on an "America First" policy, targeting China, in particular, with a series of protectionist moves.

Plaudits from foreign leaders such as President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, as well as leading figures of the economic and diplomatic world, have helped to cement this image.

"I congratulate you, Xi Jinping, for this new life that you have identified, for the openness that you have celebrated and advocated," Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, said in a speech, "for the innovation and inclusiveness that you have encouraged."

Yet even as Ms Lagarde and Mr Xi talked about that openness, forum attendees were unable to use Google, log on to Facebook or post to Twitter about the event unless they found a way to bypass China's army of Internet censors. In fact, aspects of the forum stand in stark contrast with the many ways China remains closed and intransigent.

Not only does the country restrict access to the Internet, it has ramped up surveillance efforts in recent years. And while Chinese companies increasingly look overseas for new markets, foreign businesses routinely complain that they are unable to freely sell to customers in China.

To some of the more cynical China watchers, there is a sense that the pledges Mr Xi offered to the forum, and the world, may amount to less than they appear.

While Mr Xi's vow at the forum to ease tariffs and open China's markets cheered investors, it mostly repeated Beijing's earlier promises. His plan to lower charges on imported cars, an oft-cited complaint of Mr Trump's, came with a new deadline - before the end of the year - but left out crucial details, such as by how much they would fall. He promised to improve intellectual property safeguards, another long-time US frustration, as well.

The timing of reducing trade restrictions may not matter. China's tariffs in the automotive sector, for example, have already been successful in getting foreign companies to shift a large part of their supply chains to China where they make most of the cars they sell in the country. In this respect, Mr Xi's gesture is seen as too little too late. For many years, Chinese officials have said that they would reduce protectionist policies in the automotive industry when they are ready to move into Western markets to prevent the possibility of reciprocal tariffs.

There was no chance for political maneuvering at the forum, though, as no US officials were present.

On Wednesday, China's central bank governor Yi Gang also partly fleshed out how China planned to open the country's financial services sector to foreign investors.

Mr Yi did not go into details, but he said that restrictions on foreign insurers and on foreign ownership of securities would be loosened by the end of June. He added that China planned to create a connected stock market between Shanghai and London that would allow investors in either market to invest in the other, despite China's tight control on the flow of money over its border.

"There is clearly a lot of room for improvement when it comes to opening up and creating level playing fields between China and the rest of the world," said Hans-Paul Bürkner, chairman of the Boston Consulting Group.

In any case, such criticism was drowned out by a focus on celebrating Mr Xi, who has progressively strengthened his control over the government and the economy. Just last month, for example, he did away with the term limits that had bound his predecessors for decades.

"China is wonderful for us in business," Gerry Grimstone, deputy chairman of the British bank Barclays, told Bloomberg television on the sidelines of the forum. "The fact that Xi is prepared to give such strong authoritarian guidance within the context of a market economy is great for companies like mine."

Many of the nearly 2,000 members of the news media - a figure cited by Boao organisers - who came to this sunny island for the three-day conference have dutifully carried similar messages of a strong and responsible China. Transcripts and state media clips were quickly available for those who missed out on any panels, and social media was overwhelmed with quotes from dignitaries and corporate executives about China's new position on the global stage.

Mr Duterte helped to set the tone just before heading to Boao, telling reporters back home: "I need China. More than anybody else at this point, I need China." He added: "I simply love Xi Jinping. He understood, he understands my problem and is willing to help, so I would say thank you China."

Absent from the panels at Boao was much discussion about how trade tariffs could affect the Chinese economy. Instead, the message was that the US would be left behind.

"China will open up more to the whole world, but if America carries on with its protectionist measures, the US will be left out," said Li Daokui, director of the Center for China in the World Economy at Tsinghua University.

Should Mr Trump follow through with threatened tariffs on US$150 billion worth of Chinese exports, there would be an impact on the Chinese economy, said Xu Sitao, chief China economist for Deloitte China. "In the end, the effect will be some tax on the economy," the economist added.

The telecommunications sectors, and specifically telecom equipment, would bear the brunt of the tariffs, he noted.

If that spurred any concern among China's technology entrepreneurs, though, few expressed it at the forum. They broadly warned that closing borders would stifle innovation, but did not specify how a trade dispute with the US could affect their bottom line.

Shen Wei, president and chief executive of Vivo, a Chinese software company, urged companies such as his to be more open with their technology. "We cannot survive without each other," he said.

Baidu, China's biggest Internet search company, has been a beneficiary of previous attempts by the Chinese government to protect domestic companies. Speaking at the Boao forum, Zhang Yaqin, Baidu's president, urged the US to be more open and said that his company had not felt much impact from the growing trade tensions.

"I have not seen a significant influence on our basic work," Mr Zhang said. "I do not want to see this trade dispute escalate," he added. "But it will not affect the development of technology." NYTIMES