When Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook appeared at the China Economic Forum in Beijing on Saturday, he said he was thrilled to be back in the country for the first time since 2019. The contrast between the warm welcome Cook received in Beijing and the aggressive questioning of TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew in Washington two days earlier could not have been more stark.
China had a single message to transmit to the international business leaders, economic experts and commentators at the forum: after three years of zero-Covid, the country is open for business. That message was amplified most eloquently as the forum ended on Monday when Alibaba founder Jack Ma was pictured visiting a school in Hangzhou, the first time he was seen in mainland China for more than a year.
Once China’s most prominent tech entrepreneur, Ma retreated from public view more than two years ago after he made a speech criticising China’s financial oversight authorities and a $37 billion initial public offering of his fintech company Ant Financial was abandoned. Although he has spent much of the past two years travelling outside China, business insiders have been expecting his return to the mainland since Li Qiang was named premier earlier this month.
As a former governor of Zhejiang, the province where Alibaba is based, Li has known Ma for more than a decade and he said in 2014 that “there should be more Alibabas and more Jack Mas”. Ma’s return, whether temporary or permanent, sends a signal to foreign investors that China’s crackdown on tech giants may be ending, despite last month’s disappearance of billionaire tech dealmaker Bao Fan.
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Vice-premier Ding Xuexiang told the forum on Sunday that “opening to the outside world is a national policy, it is a mark of modern China” and promised to improve market access for foreign companies. A number of multinational chief executives stressed the importance of creating a more level playing field if China wants to attract more foreign investment.
The business leaders who came to Beijing for the event included the bosses of BMW, Mercedes, Bosch, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, HSBC, Rio Tinto and Nestlé. Their message was as upbeat as that of their hosts, declaring their commitment to doing business in China over the long term.
Maersk’s Vincent Clerc pointed out that, despite geopolitical tensions and talk of economic decoupling, China’s trade with both the United States and the European Union reached record highs in 2022. Chinese observers are hoping that a visit to Beijing by Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez this week and by Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen next week signal a thaw in relations with Europe.
There is less optimism about relations with the US, which has banned the sale of advanced semiconductor technology to China and is considering a ban on TikTok unless its Chinese owners Bytedance sell their stake in the company. These moves are viewed from Beijing as attempts to halt China’s rise but they were discussed at the forum as part of a wider deglobalisation.
Joshua Ramo, a protege of Henry Kissinger who runs strategic advisory firm Sornay, noted that the Daioyutai State Guesthouse where the forum was taking place had been the venue for Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in 1971. Global trade accounted for just 25 per cent of global GDP that year but by 2008, globalisation had lifted that figure to almost 61 per cent of GDP.
The financial crisis halted globalisation and the coronavirus pandemic threw it into reverse in the most dramatic way as states discovered the potentially deadly consequences of insecure supply chains.
“The networks of globalisation were engineered for speed. They were very, very open, they were very, very fast and they weren’t very secure. That was true of the internet, it was true of supply-chain networks, it was true of technology and research networks. What we’ve seen is a radical shift to a desire for security in networks,” he said.
China, the United States and the European Union are currently preoccupied with the concept of resilience. The warning from business leaders in Beijing this week was that as networks become more secure, they should not become closed in a way that chokes off trade, innovation and co-operation on global challenges like climate change.