China managing expectations at Davos

by | Feb 2, 2010

In sync with Chinese Vice Premier (and likely PM-in-waiting) Li Keqiang’s address at Davos, an interesting piece appeared today in the Global Times (the international news arm of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, i.e. a mouthpiece), which is revealing about the Chinese leadership’s continued ambivalence towards projecting China as an emerging superpower. Excerpts of the article entitled ‘managing the world’s rising expectations‘ follow:

The world has been expecting more from China, especially since the financial crisis. But between the increasingly high expectations and China’s real capabilities, there is a huge gap, which is evident in the 2010 World Economic Forum that opened Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland.
At the forum attended by about 2,500 leaders from over 90 countries and regions, China is expected by many to purchase Greek bonds, to continue holding US treasury bills, and to lead global recovery while under the onslaught of protectionism.
Even those who are blaming China’s monetary and trade policies for causing tensions in the post-crisis period expect that China should save the world’s economy.
Though such expectations may boost national pride among a section of Chinese, there is a strong case for China to remain clear-headed about the reality it is facing.
On the one hand, it is an emerging economy, with its 8.7 percent GDP growth in 2009 and its soaring middle class population.
On the other hand, it remains a developing nation, with its per capita GDP ranked 106th and over 100 million people below the World Bank indicated poverty line.
The world’s expectations, unless cautiously managed by China, could jeopardize the hard-earned fruits of labor accumulated in the past six decades.

As The Economist once shrewdly observed, “China’s own world view has failed to keep pace with its growing weight. It is a big power with a medium-power mindset and a small-power chip on its shoulder.” The cautious attitude of the leadership reflects concerns that a ‘superpower’ role in international affairs would: (i) make it difficult for China to avoid adopting positions that will add complexity to decision-making and may be at odds with the raw pursuit of national self-interest; (ii) divert its attention and resources away from addressing domestic issues. The more cynical, such as Yan Xuetong, the Director of the Institute for International Studies at the elite Tsinghua University,  go as far as to suspect a Western conspiracy to ‘trap’ China and ‘exhaust our limited resources’ by locking it in to onerous international agreements and obligations. Li Keqiang’s  address at Davos was in keeping with Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of keeping a low profile in international affairs. It was a reminder that the national interest will remain paramount even as China’s voice and involvement on global affairs rises. Along similar lines, see also the report on China’s participation at Davos in today’s FT: ‘West too busy with its crises to engage east’.


  • Leo is Head of WRI’s London Office and Director for Strategy and Partnerships at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and Professor of Practice at the SOAS Center for Development, Environment and Policy. Prior to joining WRI Leo served as Climate Change and Environment Adviser for the Africa region at the United Nations Development Programme, covering 45 countries. Before that he had served as an adviser to the British and Chinese governments and the World Bank, covering a range of technical and strategic issues linked to the environment-development nexus. Leo writes here in a personal capacity and his views do not necessarily reflect those of WRI.

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