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In a city where China has welcomed the world, Xi braces for a colder

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When China opened up to foreign investors, the country was in desperate need of foreign technology to jumpstart its growth. Today, as China faces growing global barriers, its leader, Xi Jinping, urges greater domestic innovation.

Xi delivered the message on Wednesday during an anniversary pilgrimage to the southern city of Shenzhen, which in 1980 was established as a special economic zone next to the world financial center of Hong Kong. Shenzhen quickly became an incubator for reform and openness, the strategy championed by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that paved the way for the country’s economic take-off that lasted for decades.

Forty years later, Xi said China still welcomes foreign investors, but he also said it needs to prepare for a less welcoming world. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the rise of barriers to the free flow of goods and technology, Xi said, a theme he recently highlighted.

The world economy is at an all-time low and international trade and investment have declined significantly, Xi said outside a conference hall filled with officials and guests wearing protective masks, in a speech this was widely promoted by the Chinese media.

Xi did not refer directly to the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict Chinese companies’ access to U.S. technology amid growing tensions between the two countries. Instead, Xi has widely warned that the world has entered a time of turmoil and transformation. Shenzhens’ experience, he said, showed that China must take the lead in the global technological revolution.

China is working to revive its economy and restore its international reputation amid the coronavirus pandemic, which began late last year in the central city of Wuhan. The pandemic has taken negative opinions of China to new heights in the United States and other wealthy democracies, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week.

Xi is also trying to calm nerves over Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese territory where a sweeping security law was recently imposed in response to the tumultuous anti-government protests last year.

Mr Xis’ speech in Shenzhen provided a likely glimpse of a meeting of Communist Party leaders at the end of the month, when he will outline China’s economic strategy for the next five years, including by further exploiting the domestic innovation and consumer spending.

Xi pledged to make Shenzhen a testing ground for modernizing China’s economy and boosting innovation, citing plans to increase spending on technology research. He stressed the importance of Shenzhens in a regional economic initiative that also encompasses Hong Kong, a strategy that could strengthen Chinese influence over the former British colony and underline its diminished importance to Beijing.

Speech by Mr. Xis and other comments during his trip this week to Guangdong province, which includes Shenzhen, also highlighted his efforts to redefine China’s decades-old openness strategy.

Former leaders insisted on using foreign capital and technology to help China catch up; Xi wants to change the balance by bringing Chinese technology, investment and power to the world.

We were experiencing a transformation like this hasn’t happened in a century, Xi said on Monday. visit of a factory in Chaozhou, another coastal city in Guangdong. We must take the path to a higher level of autonomy.

Officials have already spent years trying to shift Shenzhen from low-end industry to high-tech design and manufacture. Xi wants to wean China off foreign suppliers for crucial components, such as silicon chips, and the city is one of those plans. Shenzhen is home to the headquarters of major Chinese tech companies such as Huawei, one of the world’s largest smartphone vendors. The United States has imposed several restrictions on Huawei over the past year, deeming the company a security threat, a claim the company denies.

It’s a new twist using Shenzhen to say: We can be economically strong, we can be technologically innovative, we can be socially progressive, in Chinese terms, said Juan Du, associate professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong and author of a recent study, The Shenzhen experience.

Much depends on this for Shenzhen to set an example for other cities in China, she said. The importance of Shenzhens to the national psyche is far greater than its mere economic importance.

But China remains heavily dependent on imported technologies, especially semiconductors, the brains of all electronic devices. Despite billions of dollars in state support, Chinese chipmakers are still far behind rivals in Taiwan, South Korea and the United States.

The Trump administration is threatening to block Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, China’s most advanced chipmaker, from using American software and equipment over fears its products will be used by the Chinese military, which the company denies. The technology involved in producing chips is terribly complex to master, making it difficult for Chinese companies to easily catch up with foreign manufacturers.

The Chinese government is pretty much aware that the technology, for the most part, comes from the private sector, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of Chinese politics at the Baptist University of Hong Kong. Shenzhen and its tech companies, he said, are an integral part of this effort to leapfrog and catch up with Western countries in the high-tech arena.

Mr. X’s vision of Shenzhen as the base for China’s growing technological prowess has added resonance because his father, Xi Zhongxun, was an official who helped make the region a thriving city.

After Maos’ Cultural Revolution, a wave of people fled to Hong Kong, and Xi Zhongxun, then Guangdong party secretary, hoped areas like Shenzhen would help revive the economy and curb departures, Joseph Torigian said. , assistant professor at the American University of Washington who is Write a biography of the elder Mr. Xi. The younger Mr. Xi indirectly mentioned his father in his speech, citing him only as an anonymous provincial leader.

Hong Kong’s investment and expertise were crucial to Shenzhens ‘rise in the 1980s, but Mr Xis’ speech on Wednesday showed that financial centers have a reduced role in China’s ambitions.

Among the officials applauding Xi in Shenzhen were Hong Kongs chief executive Carrie Lam, responsible for enforcing the draconian new national security law. Earlier this week, Ms. Lam abruptly postponed her annual policy speech to avoid it coinciding with Mr. Xis’ visit to Shenzhen.

This shows again that Hong Kong is sort of an appendix to mainland China, Prof Cabestan said.

Xi also used his speech in Shenzhen to give markets a bigger role, but Chinese entrepreneurs and economists have expressed skepticism about his commitment. Since coming to power in 2012, he has insisted that the party must keep tight control over the economy and that state-owned enterprises must dominate key sectors of the industry. Last month, the Chinese side announced its intention to expand its role in private enterprises.

Mr Xis’ visit to Shenzhen did not signal any change in his established economic focus, said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a party newspaper who now lives in the United States.

I think the propaganda rhetoric has been placed so high this time to try to change the view of the outside world by saying that China doesn’t reform and quit, Deng said by phone. Often times what you do is not the same as in propaganda.

Raymond Zhong contributed reporting.

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