The Communist Party of China has a reputation for political pageantry. Its most important gathering is its Party Congress, where it picks its senior leaders. Additionally there are annual congresses of the country’s lawmakers and their political advisory body (aka the “two sessions”: the NPC and CPPCC). These task several thousand people with listening to lengthy speeches by senior Party figures.
Then there are the plenums. The Party Congress, the NPC and the CPPCC all incorporate plenary sessions. The gatherings are for the top politicians but can still see attendee numbers reach triple digits.
A zuotanhui is a less formal occasion. It translates as a “sit-and-talk seminar”(although the character zuo is a more formal one, carrying a connotation of “grand seating”).
According to the People’s Daily, the meetings are a long established tradition that date back to the early revolutionary era in Yan’an. A zuotanhui is typically held when the Party wants to push through difficult policy changes. Experts from specific sectors – typically not Communist Party members – are summoned to give their views to political leaders or regulators.
Over the past few years there have been several zuotanhui with private sector entrepreneurs. Between 2013 and 2015, or the first two years of Li Keqiang’s premiership, the prime minister held no less than six of them with private sector bosses, according to the Economic Observer. It was after these seminars that the policy targets of the Made in China 2025 initiative– designed to turn China into a tech powerhouse – were formulated.
A group of entrepreneurs were summoned for another zuotanhui earlier this month. It immediately became a talking point on social media because the seminar was hosted by no less a figure than President Xi Jinping himself.
Xi was accompanied by two other members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, emphasising the meeting’s status in the view of the People’s Daily.
The other attendees included 50 or so private sector bosses. The guest list was a familiar one, with the likes of Baidu’s Robin Li and Tencent’s Pony Ma, but the most eye-catching attendees were the 10 bosses picked to offer their views to Xi and his colleagues.
The People’s Daily commented that this group were less known to the general public and were chosen because they are developing technologies that could make a big difference to China’s future development. A couple of unicorns were among the 10, including SenseTime, an artificial intelligence (AI) firm we first covered in April (see WiC405), and Cambricon, a developer of advanced chips for AI and cloud computing. Some of the other firms have already gone public on the Chinese stock markets – pharmaceutical firm Hengrui Medicine, software developer Neusoft Corp and agricultural feed maker Tongwei, for instance – and their share prices surged after the meeting.
State media focused less on what these bosses had suggested to Xi, reporting instead that the president had once again offered them his “unswerving support”.
“The principle and policies to provide a sound environment and more opportunities to the sector have not changed either,” Xi stressed.
In the wake of his ‘Southern Tour’ last month (see WiC429) the meeting was another sign that 2018 is a pendulum year in Xi’s relationship with the private sector. As WiC has discussed before, many tycoons are concerned that Beijing has a bias for its state-owned enterprises over the nation’s more market-guided companies, as part of a process known as ‘the state advances while the private sector retreats’ (guojinmintui).
But the past few weeks have seen Xi flagging his support for entrepreneurs whenever he can, perhaps in acknowledgement that the Made in China 2025 campaign needs them to succeed, because of their stronger track record in innovation than the state firms.
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