HONG KONG — For 30 minutes Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered conciliatory promises to political and business leaders from 172 countries gathered in Shanghai: He would turn his country of 1.3 billion into global consumers, welcome foreign investors into previously restricted sectors and crack down on Chinese companies that abuse intellectual property rights.
Then he seemingly turned to an audience of one — his counterpart in the Oval Office — and his tone hardened.
“Great winds and storms may upset a pond but not an ocean,” Xi said, comparing China to a vast and immovable sea. “After 5,000 years of trials and tribulations, China is still here. Looking ahead, China will be here to stay.”
In his address in Shanghai, closely watched as perhaps the Chinese president’s last major speech on trade before he is set to meet with President Trump for crucial talks this month in Argentina, a confident Xi gave few signs that he was in the mood to make significant concessions.
For more than half an hour, Xi hit placating notes — and then steely ones. He made promises to cut tariffs, open up sectors such as health care and education to foreign investment, and import $45 trillion in goods and services over the next 15 years. Then he threw veiled jabs at Trump’s leadership style.
“As globalization deepens, the practices of law of the jungle and winner take all are a dead end,” he said.
His remarks kicked off the China International Import Expo, a week-long showcase meant to rebrand China as a consumption powerhouse at a time when its record-high trade surplus with the United States is just one of many sticking points for the Trump administration, which has demanded that Beijing take concrete action to level the trade relationship and resolve the tariff standoff.
Without mentioning the United States by name, Xi made broad promises to let global companies tap into the Chinese middle class and “share the benefits of globalization.”
“China is a big market of over 1.3 billion people, and it is our sincere commitment to open the market,” Xi said. “China increasing imports will not be a choice of political expediency but a future-oriented step taken to embrace the world.”
But beyond the promises of boosting Chinese consumption, which has been a long-standing priority for Beijing, Xi stopped short of tackling the politically thorny complaints voiced by major trading partners.
For instance, the United States, Europe and Japan have taken issue with aspects of China’s industrial policy that prop up its domestic industries while blocking foreign firms, such as high-tech and Internet companies, in its bid for self-reliance. And many foreign governments have professed frustration with the alleged theft of trade secrets. The U.S. Department of Justice said last week it would launch an initiative to name and shame Chinese spies.
Xi acknowledged that China should strengthen intellectual property enforcement and said it would ratchet up punishments for violators. But he immediately followed up with a stiff rebuke of China’s critics.
Those who complain about Chinese commercial practices “should not just point fingers at others to gloss over their own problems,” he said. “They should not hold a flashlight that only exposes others while doing nothing themselves.”
Jim McGregor, chairman of the consultancy APCO’s Greater China practice, said the foreign business community has “heard these same things” for years from Chinese leaders.
“President Xi said nice words about free trade, openness, intellectual property protection and China’s willingness to be open to the world,” McGregor said. “But all of this will fall on deaf ears unless concrete actions begin to take place.”
With the United States notably absent, Xi ticked off a list of trade relationships that China has advanced: with the European Union, South Korea, Japan and African countries. China, he added, was fully committed to multinational organizations such as the Group of 20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group.
At times, Xi appeared to also address his domestic audience. With China this winter approaching the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the “Reform and Opening Up” movement launched by Deng Xiaoping, some intellectuals and political elites have wondered whether his administration has rolled back some of those market-oriented reforms while assuming a bigger role in the private sector.
The path of reform and opening up was precisely what launched China to success, Xi said, adding that he was confident China’s development would continue steadily despite its slowest GDP growth rate in a decade.
While acknowledging factors “at home and abroad” that have affected the Chinese economy, Xi said that “the Chinese people will overcome all challenges coming our way.”
More than 3,600 companies, including representatives from U.S. giants such as General Electric and Ford, attended the conference, according to Chinese state media.
While the British trade minister was present, the event did not draw many top leaders from large countries aside from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The U.S. government said it had no plans for “high-level participation” in the Shanghai expo.
“We encourage China to level the playing field for U.S. goods and services,” the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said in a statement. “China needs to make the necessary reforms to end its unfair trade practices that are harming the world economy.”
Still, China rolled out the red carpet for allies old and new. After Xi spoke Monday morning, he yielded the stage to President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic, which this summer cut ties with Taiwan and established relations with Beijing — a move that infuriated the State Department.
Hours later, Imran Khan, the recently elected prime minister of Pakistan — China’s closest ally — walked onstage and launched more veiled barbs at Washington.
“While unilateral commercialism is aggressively sought by some and protectionism is on the rise,” Khan said, “Pakistan takes great comfort in President Xi’s courageous statement that their doors will never shut.”