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As star attraction at Davos, China's Xi Jinping pushes globalization: 'No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war'

One year ago, the financial elite mingled in a Swiss Alps resort over Champagne and caviar, discussing a Hillary Clinton presidency in the U.S. and chuckling at the thought of Britain leaving the European Union.

They warned of China’s “hard landing” as its economy sputtered. 

This year, Chinese President Xi Jinping took center stage at the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland, deriding protectionism’s perils as China seeks to bolster its role in the world economy.

“There is no point in blaming economic globalization for the world’s problems because that is simply not the case,” Xi said in a Tuesday keynote address. “And that will not help solve the problems.”

The first Chinese president to speak at Davos, Xi signaled the country’s enhanced global profile as incoming U.S. President Donald Trump promises an “America first” isolationism, while Europe occupies itself with “Brexit” and the populist backlash that has swept the world. That tide could continue this year with elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy.

Xi made no direct reference to Trump, but his message challenged the anti-globalization stance that helped bring the U.S. president-elect to power.

“Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room,” Xi said. “Wind and rain may be kept outside, but so is light and air.”

Xi’s nearly hourlong speech, which included a Charles Dickens quote and drifted toward the philosophical, did subtly rib Trump, who has accused China of manipulating its currency, stealing U.S. jobs and “raping” America.

“No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war,” Xi said.

Few predicted such shifts that last snowy January, and anxiety coursed through meetings and seminars at this year’s event — which runs through Jan. 20, Trump’s inauguration day. The theme this year is “responsive and responsible leadership.” 

Some 3,000 chief executives and politicians are meeting in the Swiss resort town to weigh matters such as climate change and income inequality, but also the discontent seeping across continents. A World Economic Forum report on global risks, which came out in the lead-up to Davos, warned of “diminishing public trust in institutions” and the “difficult task” of rebuilding it.

But it was the son of a Chinese revolutionary, fervent nationalist and leader of a communist nation who led the opening session and called for global cooperation.

Trump did not send an official representative. One of his advisors, hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci, arrived for the four-day affair. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry are attending the forum.

China’s delegation included the country’s two richest men: Wang Jianlin, founder of Dalian Wanda Group, which recently bought the AMC cinema chain and Legendary Entertainment, and Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce company.

Xi asked leaders not to abandon the principles that have fueled economic growth for decades, including China’s own development.

“China certainly seems to be taking advantage of the U.S.’ increasingly shaky commitment to global free trade to portray itself as a potential new leader,” said Victor Shih of UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

The country last year launched an international lending organization, which pours millions into ramshackle roads and water pumps. China continues to expand its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, an effort to revive the ancient Silk Road trade routes and spread its influence west.

Chinese leaders have increased the nation’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea’s disputed waters through artificial islands and the installation of military infrastructure. And they recently offered an alternative to a U.S.-backed Pacific trade pact that withered last year, handing the country an even greater voice in Asian economic affairs.

But Shih cautioned against assuming the communist nation had fully embraced economic liberalism. He noted that China has pursued “aggressive mercantilist” policies and advocated replacing foreign imports with “made in China” products for more than a decade. Such a policy is far harder to impose in the U.S., he said, despite Trump’s rhetoric.

“Other industrial economies will find China a troublesome trading partner for some time to come,” he said.

Xi’s speech also addressed globalization’s challenges, including the threat of global warming and a widening gap between the world’s richest and poorest.

Eight men own the same amount of wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity, development organization Oxfam said in a report that coincided with the event.

“We need to have the vision to dissect these problems,” Xi said. “More importantly, we need to have the courage to address them.”

Chinese premiers, including Li Keqiang, have attended the forum, but this marked a first for the head of China’s Communist Party. The event gave the president a chance to showcase his global stature back home, where a party reshuffle will occur later this year. 

Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong last week called Xi’s speech no less than “a blueprint for the future progress of humanity,” and state-run China Daily labeled Xi “the general secretary of globalization.”

People’s Daily, a party-run newspaper, ran three front-page stories on Monday about Xi’s visit to Davos, with smiling photos of the Chinese and Swiss presidents.

“China is more willing than ever to actively participate in world forums and maintain the existing world order,” said Lei Da, an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing.

The country, he said, “is very optimistic about the benefits that globalization will continue to create.” 

Meyers is a special correspondent. Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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