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China vs. EU in Davos: Dueling speeches display global divisions

Chinese Premier Li Qiang pitches business investors; while EU chief Ursula von der Leyen focuses on democracy and the West’s geopolitical interests.

January 16, 2024

DAVOS, Switzerland — The fractured state of the world was on raw display Tuesday in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos as European and Chinese leaders gave dueling speeches to open the annual meeting of global business and political elites.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang made what amounted to an unabashed sales pitch to multinational companies to invest in a Chinese economy that looks increasingly shaky; while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen responded with a staunch defense of democracy and the West’s geopolitical interests.

In a speech carefully tailored for a global business audience at the World Economic Forum, Li laid out a vague five-point proposal he said was meant to “rebuild trust and enhance cooperation in the economic field” between China and the West. 

He said this should involve more macroeconomic coordination, keeping China-centered supply chains free of obstructions, more cooperation on green goals and more technological cooperation.

While Li didn’t mention the U.S. once, he made repeated references to unnamed “capricious,” untrustworthy and overbearing nations — the Chinese Communist Party’s code for America.

The bulk of Li’s speech was directed at assuaging concerns from global investors who have cooled on China as the economy slows and the regime becomes more totalitarian and more interventionist in the market.

In the third quarter of last year, China recorded its first-ever quarterly net outflow of foreign investment since records began in the late 1990s and that trend is expected to continue.

Li compared the Chinese economy to the Swiss Alps and its “undulating mountain range with magnificent peaks.” 

“To fully appreciate these majestic peaks we need to zoom out,” and that’s what investors need to do when appraising the Chinese economy, he said.

“Choosing the Chinese market is not a risk but an opportunity” and the Communist Party welcomes foreign investors “with open arms” Li added.

'Fragmentation and fear'

Li’s attempt to woo investors was followed by von der Leyen’s own remarks in Davos, which were laden with Western maxims — the EU chief mentioned democracy nine times and freedom six times in a 20-minute speech.

In the face of mounting global challenges — exacerbated by disinformation — von der Leyen painted Europe as a global leader, shaping worldwide efforts to rebuild eroded trust and to tackle global challenges.

And many of the solutions require collaboration not only among countries, but also between business and governments, she said.

“It has never been more important for the public and private sector to create new connective tissue. None of these challenges respect borders,” she said, adding once again that Europe is “uniquely placed to show how this can work.”

The Commission president warned that the world is facing “the greatest risk to the global order in the post-war era,” with risks “overlapping and compounding each other.”

Despite this era of “conflict and confrontation, of fragmentation and fear,” von der Leyen put on a brave face as she closed her speech, broadcasting confidence in Europe’s future.

“Freedom in business relies on the freedom of our political systems,” von der Leyen said.

“This is why I believe strengthening our democracy and protecting it from the risks and interference it faces, is our common and enduring duty.”

“We need to rebuild trust more than ever and Europe is prepared to play a key role,” she added.

But von der Leyen’s words of collaboration and united front fell flat against the background of Davos, where the glaring cracks between world leaders were on full display.

By Tuesday, most of the U.S.'s unusually small delegation had already left the Alps, yet another symptom of diluted will to converse on the global stage.



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