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WEF in China: Global economy in a slump

Manuela Kasper-Claridge in Dalian, China
June 25, 2024

China has been the driver of the global economy for years, but now it's hitting roadblocks. It's just one of the many topics at this year's World Economic Forum meeting in China.

A group of men standing outside the entrance to this year's Summer Davos meeting in Dalian, China
Around 1,500 participants are expected at this year's Summer Davos meeting in Dalian, ChinaImage: M. Kasper-Claridge/DW

For a few days, a subway station in Dalian, China, will be renamed. Instead of simply Congress Center it is now plastered with huge decals that say "Annual Meeting of the New Champions."

Outside, the streets and sidewalks are sparkling clean, access roads all around have been cleared far and wide. Colorful flags flutter in the wind.

Dalian, a city on the Yellow Sea in northeast China, is the proud host of this year's Summer Davos, as the meeting is more commonly known. 

The World Economic Forum (WEF) event is taking place in China for the 15th time. From June 25 to 27 participants will gather again in the city's futuristic conference center.

The conference center looks like a giant shell and was designed by Vienna-based architects. The building can accommodate 7,000 visitors; some 1,500 are expected at the Summer Davos meeting.

The lobby of the WEF's Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China
The WEF is trying to show the global economy the way forward while also offering quiet places to talk in ChinaImage: M. Kasper-Claridge/DW

Thousands of visitors and confidential talks

Directly in front of the conference center is a showroom with a new BMW model. The German car manufacturer produces sedans for the Chinese market in Shenyang, about an hour-and-a-half from Dalian by train.

Many of the cars are significantly longer than the ones in Europe. Anyone who can afford such a BMW in China usually has a driver. Large monitors with internet access, video games or TVs are intended to make the journey more pleasant for those sitting in the back. The vehicle on display is, unsurprisingly, an electric model. 

A view of a street in Dalian, China, which is hosting the WEF's Summer Davos
The coastal city of Dalian has pulled out all the stops to once again host the WEF's Summer DavosImage: M. Kasper-Claridge/DW

Tensions and global trade wars?

The way the conference center was designed allows for the quick creation of meeting rooms. And creating safe spaces for confidential conversations is opportune, given the unrest in the world at the moment.

One of the most serious situations is the increasing political and economic tensions between the United States and China. China may also be about to start a trade war with the European Union over electric vehicles.

"Beijing is opposed to any form of trade war," wrote the China Daily, the English-language newspaper published by China's Communist Party, in an editorial last week. But just a few lines later it threatened countermeasures if the EU imposes special tariffs on certain electric vehicles from China.

China is 'the epicenter for innovation'

Against this background, there is little optimism in Dalian. Granted, the global economy is growing, especially in Asia. However, when WEF experts speak of a recovery they are very cautious pointing out the "current muted state" of the economy. At the moment, a number of serious geopolitical risks are brewing.

But others see opportunities for business with China. One of them is Suhas Gopinath, the CEO of Globals, which works with artificial intelligence and specializes in cybersecurity. Gopinath came to Dalian from Bangalore, India, and his schedule for the next few days is completely full.

"China is now like the epicenter for innovation, and I am very curious about what is happening after the post-pandemic world in China," said Gopinath. "The Summer Davos is taking place after a very long gap, and I think it is very important for every businessman who is building a global company not to miss out on what is happening in China."

Fears that China overtaking car country Germany

China developing its own technology

The Dalian city government contacted Gopinath before his visit and suggested people he could contact to set up meetings. It even provided a Chinese student who speaks good English to help as an interpreter.

China wants to present itself as a reliable and important economic partner. The People's Republic is pushing its own developments in green industries and technologies, plus artificial intelligence.

Nevertheless, a certain level of cooperation with foreign companies is still being encouraged.

"We could learn from them, study from them, not just copy from them and we could find our path to find the right way to improve the technology and other things in China," said 21-year-old Yu Boyi, of Shenyang. He is an exceptional student, with good grades and knowledge of English, and is probably one of the youngest participants at this year's meeting.

New technologies and know-how

Many Chinese people in Dalian appear just as self-confident as the young student.

It's an attitude that seems to say that anyone who wants to work with us is welcome — if they accept our conditions. Most importantly it's about the transfer of know-how and opportunities through the rapid development of new technologies.

Politics, on the other hand, is a subject many here don't like to talk about that much.

"Countries can't be in silos for trade and business. It is very important to keep the geopolitical aspects aside and to focus on the economy and on growth," said Indian entrepreneur Gopinath. "India cannot go ahead without China , and the other way around."

For its part, Dalian did a lot to prepare for this World Economic Forum event. Friendly, smiling employees fill the hotels to show guests the way.

Other volunteers were trained for weeks to welcome visitors in an open, cosmopolitan manner. They are supposed to speak English as much as possible, though some still have difficulties.

Even the weather has cooperated so far, an agreeable 26 degrees Celsius (78 degrees Fahrenheit). Not too hot, and not too cold.

This article was originally written in German.

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