Back in China

Mar 31, 2023

Finally.  After nearly 3½ years I returned to China for my first post-Covid visit.  The 24th annual China Development Forum was the focus of the trip.  I have attended every CDF since 2001, missing only the first one in 2000.  I have long found the CDF to be the most important gathering in China. In the beginning, as orchestrated by the incomparable Premier Zhu Rongji, CDF was designed to come immediately after the “Two Sessions,” providing an opportunity for senior government officials to engage international experts—academics and a small contingent of international business leaders—in debate over newly agreed upon Chinese policies.  Zhu relished debate and he viewed CDF as an important stress test for his cabinet in the State Council.

The conference has changed significantly over the years. The CDF has now taken on Davos-like proportions—easily ten times the original size, with an overwhelming participation by the foreign business community. The sessions are larger, less an opportunity for debate and more a platform for speeches and short presentations.   The real action takes place now more on the “sidelines—  exchanging views with old friends from China and the international crowd of China watchers.

There were no surprises in terms of Chinese policy and reforms; the die had been cast at the 20th CCP Congress of October 2022 and detailed by the Work Report delivered March 5 at the National People’s Congress by outgoing Premier Li Keqiang. The messaging of CDF-2023 was in strict conformity with those pronouncements. All of the senior Chinese officials who spoke at CDF 2023—especially, the newly installed Premier (Li Qiang), but also the First Vice Premier (Ding), Head of the NDRC (Zheng), and Finance Minister (Liu)—were very repetitive. It was the most tightly scripted and slogan-intensive CDF I have ever seen.

The collective message was one of confidence about the 5% growth rebound for 2023—a pretty easy target to hit at this point—and a determination to broaden China’s push for ”opening up” and global institutional leadership. This later point is worth stressing. Starting with the Belt and Road initiative, Xi Jinping’s initial signature initiative in global policy that was rolled out nearly ten years ago, China’s efforts to remake global governance have taken on critical strategic importance, especially when compared with the earlier culture of “hide and bide” espoused by Deng Xiaoping. New emphasis on Xi’s “three G’s” said it all: GSI (Global Security Initiative, GDI (Global Development Initiative), and GCI (Global Civilization Initiative).

In the concluding lunch address by Foreign Minister Qin Gang, there was no backing off on China’s increasingly tough stance on the US; Qin’s main talking points—”the US regards China as its primary adversary and … is intent on closing off the path of China”—repeated the strong message that both he and Xi sent two weeks earlier at the National People’s Congress.

While in Beijing, I also did a fair amount of non-CDF activity that was helpful in triangulating my CDF impressions. I did two book talks, attended several off-the-record dinners, met with former students, and spent some time with the Chinese media. I also had an opportunity for extended offline exchanges with several senior Chinese officials, both retired and still active.

Putting it all together, I left Beijing with a growing sense of unease. In China, there were signs of both danger and opportunity in the air, consistent with the dual meaning of the Mandarin word for crisis, wéijī (危机). Official talk of cyclical recovery had a certain ring of false bravado, underscored by China’s own growth challenges, mounting recessionary risks to a crisis-prone, fragmented global economy, and puzzlement over deepening conflict with the US. Yet opportunity—that of a rising China  versus a declining America—is an increasingly popular theme expressed in senior Chinese leadership circles; as, I wrote recently for Project Syndicate, the growing SVB crisis plays right into the hands of the muscular, confident mindset that was very much on display by senior Chinese officials at CDF-2023.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

Sign up for Stephen’s Dispatches: