At the World Economic Forum, A Lot of Love for China—Except from Some Chinese

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China's Premier Wen Jiabao answers a question at the opening ceremony of World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions, in northeastern China's port city of Dalian, September 14, 2011. (Photo: Jason Lee / Reuters)

The streets of the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian, which has been hosting the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions, are lined with cheery red banners that read in English: “Cooperation, Harmony and Win For All.” Yet even as business leaders flocked to sessions on topics like “new sustainability champions” and “thriving in a global environment,” the mood in Dalian has been grim. Europe’s debt crisis is spiraling, as are the U.S.’ budget woes. Inflation is pushing up food and fuel prices in the developing world. And let’s not even get started on Japan, whose sclerotic leadership has disappointed an economically wounded populace. The news got even worse on Friday when it was reported that a UBS banker  somehow may have lost $2 billion.

But there was one bright spot at the “Summer Davos,” and the warm glow bathed the Chinese hosts. World business leaders were practically falling over themselves to court China, which enjoyed an 11% rise in foreign direct investment in August, compared to the same period last year. Yes, there was the occasional grumble, like when U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke chastised China on rampant intellectual property piracy or when a few foreigners hinted that a revaluation of the Chinese currency wouldn’t be a bad thing. But, in general, the global executives gathered in Dalian seemed determined to make nice with China. (The only two other kvetches that I heard foreigners express were chagrin when they discovered that Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China and when they encountered yet another spiky sea cucumber at a banquet.)

There were plenty of Chinese leaders in Dalian who were happy to bask in the praise. Guo Zhuqing, the Chairman of China Construction Bank opined that “China is right at the center of the world market”—which given its buoyant GDP growth projection and enormous cache of U.S. Treasury bonds wasn’t an unfair assessment. And there was an equal amount of tsk-tsking at the West for having landed itself in such dire financial straits. In his keynote speech Premier Wen Jiabao gave vague reassurances that “China believes in Europe’s ability to overcome the difficulties and is willing to invest more in Europe.” But he also warned that “countries must first put their own house in order” and called for an easing of Western trade and investment restrictions on China—presumably before Chinese funds start flowing too freely the other way.

(SEE: Pictures from Shanghai’s dazzling World Expo.)

Li Daokui, an advisor to the Chinese central bank, was blunter: “The Chinese authorities are the most patient, the most cooperative investors in the world. Imagine if the $3.2 trillion currency reserves is being controlled by Mr. George Soros. I’m sure he’d already be underselling U.S. Treasury bonds. Your financial markets would be in much bigger chaos than it is.”

Even Chinese state media got in on the act, with feisty CCTV presenter Rui Chenggang needling U.S. Ambassador Locke, who was famously photographed flying economy class from the U.S. to China this summer and earned admiration from some Chinese for his willingness to eschew the lavish ways of top Chinese officials: “I hear you flew coach,” taunted Rui. “Is that a reminder the U.S. owes China money?”

But the hype and hubris aside, the most critical comments about China came not from awed foreigners but from the Chinese themselves. The WEF mostly runs closed-door sessions in which participants cannot be named to protect their privacy, and many Chinese used the opportunity to express worry about a host of social ills that could challenge future growth: corruption, the wealth gap, a sclerotic education system and obstacles to innovation. Even in the on-the-record meetings, some Chinese panelists had no compunction about speaking up—even if their comments weren’t fully aired in the state Chinese press.

One of the most popular Chinese microblog discussions about the WEF summit has centered on comments made by Zhang Weiying, an economics professor at Peking University who was relieved last year of his position as dean of the school’s management school, possibly because of his unorthodox views. On Thursday Zhang bemoaned the fact that the Chinese education system taught “students to lie,” adding that China had “failed in our education. We looked on it as dissemination of knowledge but not as a way to produce people with creativity and high moral standards.” He then went on to criticize China’s economic czars who set unrealistic targets as “smart people doing something stupid.” (Some of Zhang’s less incendiary comments on the need for reform were covered in the Chinese press, but other more critical opinions were conspicuously missing.)

But the most telling remarks may have come from Premier Wen. China’s No. 2 leader, who has used various international forums to call for political reform over the past couple years, said in Dalian that he supported Chinese “rights to vote” in towns and counties if lower-level democratic experiments proceed well. Wen stressed that “the most important mission of a ruling party is to abide by and act in strict accordance with the Constitution and the laws. The Party should not replace the government in governance, and problems of absolute power and over-concentration of power should be redressed.” Pity then, that these comments were buried in many Chinese state newspapers. Only the foreign businessmen so enamored of China saw his comments splashed on the front pages of their news sources.

MORE: Fareed Zakaria profiles Wen Jiabao in an exclusive interview.