World now expecting China to lead by example, forum told

Beijing must accept it cannot rely on trade protections meant for developing countries

Former French president Francois Hollande speaking at the Boao Forum for Asia in south China's Hainan province.
Former French president Francois Hollande speaking at the Boao Forum for Asia in south China's Hainan province. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China is at a pivotal moment in time where more countries are looking to it to lead by example in its avowed stance to defend the rules-based international world order, business and government leaders from around the world said at the annual Boao Forum for Asia that began here yesterday.

The meteoric rise of China's economy to No. 2 in the world in the past decade also means Beijing needs to accept that it can no longer rely on trade protections meant for developing countries and instead should speed up its own liberalisation, former French president Francois Hollande said at a panel discussion about the country after 40 years of reform and opening up.

While former vice-minister for foreign trade and economic cooperation Long Yongtu said the government is still looking at ways to lift more than 300 million rural Chinese out of poverty - the reason why President Xi Jinping has called poverty alleviation one of the country's biggest continuing challenges - Mr Hollande said the international community now expects more from China.

"Despite there being some poor areas, China is already a high-tech country, so we have to have some changes to (World Trade Organisation) rules," he said. "The world today wants China to have more openness and reciprocity."

Noting that China's world-leading economic growth in the last 40 years had lifted 800 million people out of poverty within a generation, former Philippine president Gloria Arroyo said at the same discussion that many developing countries now see China as a donor as well as a leader in capital and technology.

China's stance of wanting to partner other countries is also "an enlightened attitude that can enhance friendships", especially in the light of growing US protectionism under President Donald Trump, Mrs Arroyo said.

"Ironically - but correctly - it is now China that is becoming the champion of globalisation and openness, and that is very correct... for the rest of us who want to see the world continue that way," she said.

"The challenge is for China to now become the leader, the new champion of openness and globalisation."

Mr Hollande also said that Mr Xi's infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative is thus a good vehicle for the world's countries, whether they are in Europe or South America, to join hands with China to fight the rising tide of protectionism and nationalism.

"Being the world's biggest power is meaningless in itself; you need to be a law-abiding country, a peaceful country as that's the most important thing," he said.

Many on the panel, which also comprised Chinese captains of industry, also urged Beijing to improve market access and competition, which they said also benefits China.

Ms Dong Mingzhu, president of Gree Electric Appliances, said: "If we constantly sabotage the market-oriented system, or use irregular behaviour on the world stage, then that in itself is behaviour that disturbs peace."

"In my view, the future needs to be market-based, as competition is inevitable and it is only through competing that an enterprise can grow up," she added.

Agreeing, Mr Xu Niansha, chairman of China Poly Group - one of the country's larger state-owned enterprises - said China's long-term aim is to be known for manufacturing the same way that Switzerland is thought of when it comes to watches, or Germany is, for cars.

"We want Chinese products to showcase our culture and characteristics in the same way these products embody the spirit of these great countries' craftsmen and their excellent corporate culture," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2019, with the headline World now expecting China to lead by example, forum told. Subscribe