As gloom mounts over Europe's debt crisis, some are looking to China to play a leading role in stabilizing the shaky world economy.
But China made clear its reluctance to take on the role of the global economic savior as it hosted the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the New Champions.
Polite applause greeted Premier Wen Jiabao as he stepped onto the stage Wednesday in the northeastern Chinese city Dalian, but his words depressed markets in Europe, a sign of the shift in the center of financial gravity.
Wen said China is willing to extend a helping hand, but developed countries must do their bit. From Europe, he asked for recognition as a market economy. From the U.S., he hoped for more access for Chinese companies and moves to reduce the budget deficit.
"The fluctuation in the value of the U.S. dollar has resulted in the instability of commodity prices on international markets. New emerging markets are under inflationary pressure," Wen said. "Under these circumstances, the Chinese economy is closely linked with the global economy. Countries must first put their own house in order."
Focus On U.S. Treasury Bills
Another high-powered panel put Chinese investments in U.S. Treasury debt under the spotlight. In the U.S. corner was the new ambassador to Beijing, former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.
He's developed a reputation for modesty after being spotted trying to buy coffee with a discount voucher. This act sparked an online discussion about just how poorly the U.S. economy must be doing.
On stage, the moderator, a famous television anchor called Rui Chenggang, was determined to bring this up.
"My colleagues told me that you flew coach — economy class — from Beijing to Dalian. Is that a reminder that the U.S. still owes China money?" he asked.
Locke parried that shot by saying it was U.S. government policy. But the other panelists — such as adviser to the Chinese central bank, Li Daokui — were determined to remind him Washington owes Beijing a bundle.
"The Chinese authorities — we — 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," he said. "I'm sure he'd already be underselling U.S. Treasury bonds. Your financial markets would be in much bigger chaos than it is."
Chinese Eyeing U.S. Assets
Still, Li said Beijing is waiting for reform of the U.S. highway, railway and postal sectors, so it can invest in those, too. Another panel member was even more blunt in his advice, and as one of China's richest men, the opinion of real estate mogul Wang Jianlian carries weight.
"Given the de facto devaluation of both the U.S. dollar and the euro, I'd stop buying treasury bonds. I'd start buying natural resources or other physical investments," he said.
He complained about lack of market access to Chinese investors, saying seven or eight American hotel groups had refused attempts by his company to buy equity stakes. Criticism appears to be mounting — even among these elites — of China's investments.
But that doesn't seem to have changed buying behavior, says Kenneth Jarrett, former U.S. consul general in Shanghai and now chairman of the greater China region for communications firm APCO Worldwide.
"You have the irony of when these calls to stop buying treasury bills [are] peaking, you also have peak periods of China buying treasury bills," he said.
But on his recent trip to China, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly compared American holdings of 69 percent of treasury bonds, to Chinese holdings of just 8 percent. This could be a new strategy of downplaying Beijing's role as America's banker. But so far, that new narrative doesn't fit Beijing's playbook.
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