At China Trade Expo, Xi Touts an Appetite for Imports

SHANGHAI—Chinese President

Xi Jinping

on Tuesday inaugurated a trade fair by saying his government will strive for robust domestic growth to benefit global business activity, messages that come as China’s economy slows and trade tension with the U.S. persists.

Mr. Xi spoke at the opening of the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, a massive trade fair of companies from 150 nations, which the government says shows its commitment to being a source of global demand. “China will open its arms to provide more market opportunities, investment opportunities and growth opportunities for countries to achieve common development,” Mr. Xi said.

However, China’s imports have fallen along with economic growth in the year since Mr. Xi opened last year’s expo.

As if to highlight its commitment to combating a worsening economic slowdown, China’s central bank lowered a key interest rate for the first time in three years while Mr. Xi was addressing an audience that included French President French

Emmanuel Macron,

Hong Kong Chief Executive

Carrie Lam,

and the prime ministers of Greece, Serbia and Jamaica.

Mr. Xi didn’t directly address trade issues with the U.S.—even as Washington and Beijing say they are close to a minideal on trade, the U.S. government has snubbed the trade expo for a second straight year—but the president stressed that China is committed to an increasingly open economy. “We will deliver on what we have promised,” Mr. Xi said.

Held in a clover-shaped building that China says is the world’s largest hall, the trade show features more than 3,000 companies selling pineapples, medicine and helicopters, including 192 U.S. companies, the most of any country.

Mr. Macron, who is visiting Shanghai along with a number of European Union trade officials who are pressing for trade deals with China, also spoke on Tuesday. He called on Mr. Xi to fulfill past pledges to provide equal treatment to foreign companies. “Open global trade is a good thing,” Mr. Macron said.

The expo builds on a message Mr. Xi has delivered on his 36 trips to other countries in the past four years: China’s middle-income group of some 400 million people represents growth for companies around the world. He pledged Tuesday “a more robust domestic market, in order to boost growth at home and provide more room for global growth.”

On the sidelines of the expo, members of the World Trade Organization are scheduled to meet to discuss the rule-making body’s structure.

The expo took place at the clover-shaped National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai, which China says is the world’s largest hall.


Photo:

Chen Fei/Zuma Press

To critics, the expo is an expensive and disruptive public-relations exercise that falls short of actual market liberalization. U.S. and European chambers of commerce say only a small percentage of their members see value in attending the expo, and that with a price tag often exceeding $28,500 per exhibit, it is most appealing to large companies that serve public-sector customers such as government-run hospitals or car makers.

Organizers said last year’s expo produced over $57 billion in deals. About half of the companies that told the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China they attended last year signed deals, and about half of those came to fruition.

In his address Tuesday, Mr. Xi highlighted liberalization in China’s free-trade zones and a new law meant to govern investment by foreign companies. He made no mention of a pledge he made last year that China would import $30 trillion in merchandise over 15 years and another $10 trillion in imported services, for about $2.67 trillion in total imports annually. Those figures were in line with trends, though above previous government commitments, analysts said.

China’s imports are down 5% this year, its currency has weakened by 2% against the dollar and annual growth has slowed to the 6% bottom line of Beijing’s target. Still, third-quarter figures on merchandise trade from China showed it appeared on track to match Mr. Xi’s goal for goods imports: roughly $2 trillion annually through 2033.

China recorded a merchandise trade surplus with 160 countries last year, a deficit with 55 and balanced trade with two, according to figures from the WTO.

U.S. President

Donald Trump

says he is intent on selling more to China and that the two sides are close to a “phase one” trade deal that could include billions of dollars in American farm exports. China’s imports from the U.S. were down 26% in the first nine months of this year.

American corporate participation at this year’s expo shows ”great confidence in the Chinese market,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said last week. “If the U.S. sends any high-level delegation, we welcome them, but if not, it’s not a big deal.” The U.S. government isn’t sending representatives to the expo.

The chief executive officer of M&M’s candy maker Mars Inc.,

Grant F. Reid,

will demonstrate an “immersive smell experience” and a “vending robot” that can “identify crowds autonomously and proactively promote products,” the company told The Wall Street Journal in a statement. Energy, aviation, health care and smart manufacturing, including a titanium alloy 3D-printed wheel, will be displayed by

General Electric Co.

And

Honeywell International Inc.,

which says it did over 10 contracts at last year’s event, says it will exhibit 30 technologies in aircraft, manufacturing and distribution, some designed for China’s market.

One of the most prominent CIIE displays in 2018 was a model of an airplane by

FedEx Corp.

Since then, the company has faced a number of probes in China, and it isn’t exhibiting at this year’s CIIE.

Applications by The Journal to cover the event were denied.

The French president, Mr. Macron, on Monday dined with Mr. Xi along Shanghai’s waterfront, where they were treated to a massive light show. Mr. Macron on Tuesday was also scheduled to open a Shanghai venue for Centre Pompidou, the French cultural organization.

The European group, including incoming EU trade commissioner

Phil Hogan,

are striving for a bilateral investment treaty with China and hope Beijing will agree this week to “geographic indicators” that would protect 100 products such as Champagne and Parma ham, in exchange for European recognition of the same number of indigenous Chinese products.

Write to James T. Areddy at james.areddy@wsj.com

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