TIANJIN, China — Chinese Premier Li Qiang on Tuesday accused Western nations of “sowing division and confrontation” in a thinly veiled criticism of Washington as he sought to restore confidence in his country’s economy and cast it as a champion for globalization.
“The invisible barriers put up by some people in recent years are becoming widespread and pushing the world into division and even confrontation,” Li said.
This is the first time since before the pandemic that the event has taken place in person, and Li’s first time on center stage. A former Chinese Communist Party boss in Shanghai who became premier in March, Li is close to Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.
The conference comes as Chinese leaders are dealing with both a struggling economy and increased mistrust from Western countries, led by the United States.
Attendees include the prime ministers of New Zealand, Vietnam and Barbados, as well as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organization.
“Recent years of rhetoric by some people have stoked ideological prejudice and hatred and, as a result, we are seeing acts of encirclement and oppression,” Li told the forum, which continues through Thursday.
His remarks come after the United States and other Group of Seven countries pledged to reduce their exposure to China, the world’s second-largest economy, saying they needed to “de-risk” and diversify away from it as its business practices “distort the global economy.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was the first to use the language “de-risk, not decouple,” in January this year.
Li took direct aim at the strategy of de-risking — a term U.S. officials say is meant to show a desire to reduce potentially dangerous dependencies.
“If there is risk in a certain industry, it is businesses that are in the best position to assess such risk. Governments … should not overreach and they should not stretch the concept of risk to turn it into an ideological tool,” the premier said.
On a visit to Beijing last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was not trying to “economically contain” China, but was trying to ensure it did not sell China specific technologies that could be used against American interests, such as in Beijing’s nuclear weapons or hypersonic missile programs.
Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, who is due to visit Beijing next week, has echoed this, saying that decoupling would be “disastrous” and that the U.S. only wanted to “de-risk” the relationship.
But China sees such efforts as part of an American plan to thwart its rise, and efforts to exert pressure from the outside are particularly concerning for Beijing as it struggles to restart the consumer-led economy after three years of paralyzing zero-covid policies.
“U.S. and European countries so-called ‘de-risking’ will in practice mean reduced purchases from China. U.S. and European Union countries hope to gradually break away from their reliance on Chinese goods to encourage the return of manufacturing. This will definitely be bad for China’s economy,” said Xi Junyang, professor at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.
Estimates for China’s growth this year range from 4.4 percent to more than 6 percent — an increase made possible, Xi notes, mainly because of the low level of growth last year of 3 percent. That was well below the government target and one of China’s worst economic performances in decades.
S&P Global on Tuesday cut its forecast for China’s growth for the year to 5.2 percent from its previous estimate of 5.5 percent.
Weak consumer spending — on everything from gadgets to cars — and slow property sales are adding to concern that growth, which picked up immediately after the end of zero-covid restrictions in December, is now losing its momentum.
During the three-day Dragon Boat Festival holiday at the end of last week, the number of trips taken and the amount spent during them was lower than in 2019, before the pandemic, according to official statistics.
Li spoke from Tianjin, a port city of more than 13 million residents where many of the challenges the country faces — depressed consumption, rising unemployment and wary foreign investment — are on display.
Across the street from where Li delivered his remarks hailing the strength and dynamism of the Chinese economy, a quiet shopping mall was filled with dozing security guards and workers taking a break from the heat. Miles away, closer to the center of the city, office buildings and residential apartments sit empty.
“The city is not that attractive to young people. The city is not that dynamic,” said Catherine Guo, general manager of the Tianjin chapter of the European Union Chamber of Commerce. Guo said some of their members are looking into relocating all or part of their operations to elsewhere in China.
Tianjin, whose economy has traditionally been dominated by state-owned enterprises, saw 1 percent growth last year, one of the slowest in China in 2022.
Authorities have been working to turn the city into an “international consumption center” by building and upgrading shopping malls. Across from the conference center, food trucks and small stands selling beer and skewers were set up for the evening — one of the city’s attempts to create a more vibrant “night economy.”
Some experts at Chinese state think tanks have called on the government to issue special treasury bonds to all 1.4 billion people in China to subsidize cash-strapped households.
The risk of a serious property market downturn, unsustainable levels of government debt and rising unemployment are also adding to concerns about the Chinese economy.
Youth unemployment is particularly bad, with the rate for people aged between 16 and 24 hitting a record high of 20 percent last month, a figure that analysts say most likely does not capture the full picture of joblessness.
But Li, who is in charge of China’s economic policies, sought to restore confidence in the Chinese economy as it struggles to recover. He said he was “fully confident” in his country’s economic prospects and that China was on track of meeting its economic goal of “around 5 percent.”
“China, as a responsible major country, has stood on the right side of history and the right side of progress,” he said.
While officials such as Li try to emphasize that China is again open for business, at home authorities have raided foreign consulting firms, cracked down on Chinese entrepreneurs and updated a foreign espionage law that left overseas firms wary of doing business here.
Authorities continue to keep a tight rein on information. On Monday, Wu Xiaobo, a popular blogger who writes about finance, was blocked from the platform Sina Weibo for posting “negative and harmful information” about Chinese economic policies.
Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed additional reporting.