President Xi Jinping on Tuesday pledged to further open China’s economy, declaring the world must “knock down walls” as he opened an annual trade fair against the backdrop of the US tariffs war.
Xi addressed an audience including French President Emmanuel Macron at the import exhibition in Shanghai, staged annually by China to show its willingness to open up its vast domestic markets in the face of criticism that they remain too closed.
The world community must “continue to knock down walls instead of building walls, resolutely oppose protectionism and unilateralism, (and) continuously reduce trade barriers”, Xi said.
The speech was light on specifics, however, and thus unlikely to mollify foreign critics who accuse China of a range of protectionist measures and failing to deliver on reform promises.
With China and the United States working to lock in a partial trade deal announced last month, Xi steered clear of their tariff war in his remarks.
It was in stark contrast to his keynote last year at the height of the trade confrontation, when Xi took a swipe at the Trump administration, decrying “protectionism”, “isolationism” and “the law of the jungle”, while not specifically naming the United States.
Speaking after Xi, Macron complained that the US-China trade war “only creates losers” and was weighing on global growth.
He expressed hope that the world’s two largest economies can reach an agreement that also will “preserve the interests” of other trade partners, like the European Union.
Without directly naming US President Donald Trump, Macron decried “unilateral action, the use of tariffs as a weapon, (and) survival of the fittest”.
But the French leader also said China’s market opening “must be speeded up and made more transparent”.
Xi told delegates he hoped a China-backed proposed regional trade deal could be signed soon, a day after it was dealt a blow by India’s withdrawal.
At a summit in Bangkok, India expressed concerns that its economy would be flooded by cheap Chinese goods under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
RCEP was meant to account for 30 percent of global gross domestic product and half the world’s people, while notably excluding the United States.
“I hope the agreement will be signed and entered into force at an early date,” Xi said.
China would be “happy” to reach free-trade agreements with other countries too, he said, adding that officials would speed up negotiations on an investment accord with the European Union and a joint pact with Japan and South Korea.
Xi repeated past pledges to offer greater market access, protect intellectual property rights and improve the legal framework for foreign enterprises.
But there are signs of disillusionment with an event heavily promoted by China as a way for overseas firms to find Chinese buyers for their goods.
Europe’s chamber of commerce in China released survey results on Monday in which only half of its members said their participation last year resulted in business agreements, and just a quarter of companies saw their deals fully “realised”.
Some members felt the expo’s main goal was to promote “hasty signatures” to make it appear a success, rather than a serious attempt to promote imports into China.
A recent survey by the Shanghai American Chamber of Commerce found just 10 percent of member-companies viewed participation this year as “very important”, while two-thirds saw “no importance”.
The state-run Global Times dismissed the criticism, saying foreign companies were landing fewer orders because of the growing quality of Chinese-made products.