China’s Vice-President Wang Qishan delivered unusually personal, off-the-cuff remarks in Singapore before his keynote address at a new economic forum after US tycoon Michael Bloomberg introduced him as “the most influential political figure” in China and the world.
Wang, widely seen as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s right-hand man, seemed taken aback by the description at the inaugural Bloomberg New Economy Forum, and tried to “lighten the mood” by speaking about the pitfalls of flattery before going on to deliver his prepared speech.
He also compared the political histories of Bloomberg and himself, respectively the former mayors of New York City and Beijing, before saying that Beijing was ready to talk to Washington to resolve their trade war.
“In my lifetime, from growing up to maturing, I have tried to keep calm and have a clear mind,” Wang said from the ballroom at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island. “When I hear words of praise, I fear that it is peng sha (an attempt to cause someone to fail by excessive praise). When I hear words of criticism, I don’t worry so much because these are bang sha.”
Bang sha refers to the intention to defeat through criticising others.
“It is not easy to keep calm and have a clear mind, and people will often lose their head when they hear flattery.”
The concept of peng sha has been a subject of discussion among Chinese scholars of international relations. Some of them have argued that Western nations are killing China by overestimating or praising China’s power as they push Beijing to take more international responsibility.
The words of caution came after Bloomberg opened the forum, an Asia-centred event that aims to rival the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with the introduction of Wang and a reference to their first meeting more than a decade earlier.
“I first met him 15 years ago in a dinner at my house when he was mayor of Beijing and I was mayor of New York,” Bloomberg, who may stand as a US presidential candidate in 2020, said.
“Today, he is the most influential political figure in China and in the world and he has played a key role in Chinese finance and politics for more than 30 years, helping to lead that country to a period of extraordinary growth, navigate challenges along the way, including the financial crisis of 2008.”
It was then that Wang, 69, strode onto the stage to upbeat music to deliver his address, where he compared his time as mayor of Beijing to Bloomberg, who was the 108th mayor of New York.
“The history of New York is not that long, and yet you are the 108th mayor,” Wang said. “Beijing has been the capital of China for several hundred years, and I wonder why there is not a mayor list. I would probably be the several hundredth mayor of Beijing.”
His spontaneous remarks were followed by a dive into major global challenges, from climate change to economic inequality and rising populism and unilateralism, before addressing the trade war with the US. In the middle of his nearly 20-minute speech, he waxed philosophically about the development of China’s history and culture, arguing that understanding this is necessary to understanding China today.
“History, the present, and future are closely related, and it is necessary to learn about China’s history and culture to understand its choice of path and system, and how they are supported by Chinese culture,” he said. “To understand the history of [the People’s Republic of China] in the past 70 years, one has to go back to the year 1840 when China was bullied and oppressed by imperialist powers. Since then, the unyielding Chinese people have been fighting to once again stand on their feet and achieve prosperity and strength.”
Wang, who was only publicly confirmed last week as the keynote speaker, concluded by stressing the need for globalisation and multilateralism, and that China – like himself – would stay “calm and clear minded” despite the trade war.
The New Economy Forum, which was several years in preparation, was to take place in Beijing, but was moved to Singapore in the midst of the months-long trade war. Its dates also clashed with the Shanghai import fair, which Beijing designated one of its priority events of the year.