China's premier promises more open economy

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

BEIJING (AP) — China's premier promised Wednesday to open the world's No. 2 economy wider to foreign companies, promising favorable conditions despite a wave of anti-monopoly investigations that business groups say might be aimed at limiting competition.

Speaking at a business conference, Premier Li Keqiang made no mention of the probes against foreign automakers, drug and technology suppliers and other companies. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a report this week the investigations unfairly target foreign companies and might be a violation of Beijing's free-trade pledges.

"We oppose protectionism in all its forms," the premier said at the World Economic Forum in the Tianjin, east of Beijing. "We will continue to pursue a more proactive strategy of opening up."

The premier promised to "improve and standardize the business environment" to attract foreign companies and investment.

Li's comments echo promises often made by Chinese leaders but come at a time when the wave of anti-monopoly investigations have prompted questions about Beijing's attitude toward foreign companies.

Business groups have said regulators might be misusing investigations to force companies to lower prices or to promote Chinese competitors.

Regulators have fined Japanese suppliers of auto parts and foreign milk producers. Officials say global automakers including Audi, Mercedes and Chrysler will face punishment for violating anti-monopoly law.

Regulatory pressure, along with slowing economic growth, has fueled pessimism among foreign companies in China. A survey last month by the American Chamber of Commerce in China found 60 percent of managers queried felt "less welcome" in this country. That was up from 41 percent who expressed similar sentiments in a survey in late 2013.

Li said Beijing wants foreign companies to help make China a creator of new technologies to support better-paid jobs and more environmentally friendly economic growth.

"We will work hard and turn China into a major innovative country," he said.

The premier promised to stamp out theft of intellectual property but gave no indication what would happen to major Chinese state companies that critics abroad say are actively involved in industrial spying.

Global companies in fields from software to autos to pharmaceuticals have set up research and development operations in China. But business groups say they are reluctant to transfer their most advanced know-how to this country due to fears of theft.