Dalian - World Economic Forum

China's premier just offered a rare glimpse of the Chinese economy — here's what he didn't say

Key Points
  • The World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the New Champions is June 27-29 in the Chinese port city of Dalian
  • Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke during the event, which is also known as Summer Davos
'We need to firmly uphold economic globalization', says Chinese Premier Li Keqiang

DALIAN, China — China kicked off the World Economic Forum's annual summer meeting with a much-anticipated speech by Premier Li Keqiang, which offered a rare glimpse into what authorities are thinking about the world's second-largest economy. But what China's second-most powerful man didn't say was just as important as what he did.

Li's Tuesday speech echoed themes that China has touted all year, positioning itself as a global benefactor, connector and leader on a wide range of major issues from climate change to trade.

He underscored China's confidence in its own continued economic health and Beijing's ability to manage risks in the financial system. He praised domestic entrepreneurship, and even rebutted claims that the country actively seeks to boost domestic enterprise at the expense of foreign firms.

China is capable of achieving growth target, says Premier Li Keqiang
Premier Li: China is creating jobs through promoting innovation and entrepreneurship
Premier Li: A lack of development is the greatest risk to China

None of his message was a surprise, or much different from what China had said in the past. Li was nuanced in his choice of language, acknowledging the challenges the country faces — many of which were surely top of mind for the executives, policymakers and experts in the room. It may have been enough to mollify those listeners for the moment, but the premier clearly didn't address some major elephants in the room.

For one, China is engaged in a wide crackdown on its financial sector, which has swept up all sorts of companies from securities firms to insurers, punishing them for insider trading and scrutinizing multi-billion dollar overseas acquisitions. From the outside, those actions seem piecemeal and the messaging far from clear, leaving many wondering when, or if, China will explain itself.

Cleaning up the financial sector should be a long-term positive for China, but Beijing has infrequently addressed how it will improve policies and regulations going forward. And while Li assured the audience that China had the tools to handle these risks, he stopped short of explaining just how the government would do so.

One of the issues at the forefront is the extent to which giant private firms are highly leveraged, and the kind of strain that places on the financial system. Investors worldwide are concerned about the lack of transparency on that issue.

There also wasn't any mention by Li of the U.S. or President Donald Trump, although the two nations have clearly ruffled each others' feathers lately on issues like trade, climate change and human rights abuses.

Experts have long said that the world's two biggest economies must find a way to work together — something leaders on both sides say they understand. But the sparring continues and both Xi and Trump are navigating crucial periods: China's leader is looking ahead to a twice-in-a-decade major leadership shuffle in the Communist Party this fall, and Trump is still in his first few months in the White House.

See more of CNBC's World Economic Forum "Summer Davos" coverage here.