Davos 2015: China's Premier Li woos Davos crowd with talk of hiking and skiing

DAVOS (Switzerland) - Determined not to be outdone, China appeared to pull out the stops with a high-powered delegation to the annual World Economic Forum this year, led by its premier Li Keqiang.

In previous years, there had been much chatter among the Davos crowd at the relatively low-key Chinese presence at this annual festival on globalisation, held in this Swiss Alpine resort.

In contrast, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stole the show last year when he delivered his keynote address, in English, to the gathering of top business, political and civil society leaders.

Competition for the affection, mindshare, and ultimately investment dollars, of the Davos elite is intense with some countries and corporations going all out to woo them. This year, for example, India, South Africa, and Indonesia have fielded teams of ministers and businessmen. South African President Jacob Zuma is leading his delegation and there was considerable buzz that Indonesian President Joko Widodo would make his Davos debut too, but he cancelled at the last minute.

India has gone a step further and set up a pavilion on the main Davos Promenade, with signs projecting its "Make In India" drive urging companies to consider the labour-rich country as the place for the manufacture of just about everything, from "software to submarines".

So there was much anticipation in the main Congress Hall when the Chinese leader took to the stage on Wednesday evening, given top billing on day one of the four-day summit by his eager to please WEF hosts.

Mr Li also seemed keen to charm his audience. He kicked off his speech in folksy fashion, recounting how he had spent some time earlier in the day hiking in the mountains and enjoying the "beauty and tranquility" of Davos.

Davos, he noted, used to be a place where harried city folks came to recover from various physical ailments. This was all the more necessary in today's world, which was far from peaceful and tranquil, he continued.

Well aware that many in the audience were anxious about the stalling of economic growth in China - his speech came a day after the country recorded its slowest growth in 24 years, with GDP at 7.4 per cent in 2014 - he assured them that there would be no hard landing, even as the Chinese economy slowed down.

This slower growth reflected a "new normal" for China's economy, he said, adding that this made structural reforms all the more critical. He pledged his government's determination to press on with them, outlining plans to liberalise the services sectors, promote entrepreneurship and innovation, protect intellectual property rights and deepen capital markets.

"We will move towards the path of reforms. This way we can shift gears without losing momentum and achieve medium- to high-speed growth, and medium- to high-level development."

To conclude, Mr Li reached for a subject close to the hearts many in this alpine resort - skiing. To ski well, you have to "go at the right speed, keep balance and be courageous", he said. This was precisely what China planned to do with its economy. In doing so, it would help give the world economy, and global businesses, a boost, he argued.

Given that the prospect of a slowdown in Europe has been much on the minds of many here, this reasurring message was certainly welcome by his audience.

Not one to miss a beat, the ever urbane WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab took up the imagery when he wrapped the day's proceedings by wishing Mr Li "good skiing on the slopes of the Chinese economy".

warren@sph.com.sg