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At annual meeting of global leaders, bullishness on China's economy abounds

  • The World Economic Forum meeting in Dalian, China saw investors, CEOs, academics and policymakers from around the world weigh in on the strength of the Chinese economy.
  • While they acknowledged the challenges facing the world's second-largest economy, most of those experts expressed optimism about Beijing's ability to continue to propel strong growth.

DALIAN, China — Despite many risks and challenges facing the world's second-largest economy, views on China were largely optimistic at the World Economic Forum meeting here in Dalian.

The positivity may have seemed incongruous with the perennial spate of doomsaying headlines, but the line held strong throughout "Summer Davos." During the three-day gathering — named after the forum's annual marquee event in Switzerland — business leaders, policy makers and experts focused on imagining the future, and how the world ought to position itself to take tomorrow by storm.

While some of the forum's discussions looked beyond the horizon — from smarter-than-human artificial intelligence to solving political strife — much of the discussion focused on the here and now of China, which has hosted the annual meeting for about a decade.

The tone was set with Premier Li Keqiang's opening speech on Tuesday, which offered a rare glimpse into what authorities are thinking in the world's second-largest economy.

During his address, Li touted the idea of a Chinese economy driven by innovation. It's an image that China has been eager to push, marking a clear shift from the old stereotype of a "copycat China," especially as entrepreneurship has boomed. The premier also made it clear that Beijing was aware of risks facing growth, and assured the audience that authorities were equipped to handle them.

China's growth momentum remains strong, according to Helen Zhu, managing director and head of China equities at BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager. And a wider crackdown that has hit the financial sector isn't unusual in a developing market — while holes would take a while to fix, it's a good sign the government is working on it now, she said.

"Any problem that's taken seven, nine years to build up will not be resolved overnight, so that path towards the resolution will not be a straight line either," Zhu said.

Former Chinese central bank advisor Li Daokui even predicted the country's economic growth will accelerate once the country gets new leaders who aren't scared. Many officials have been swept up in a major anti-corruption campaign waged by President Xi Jinping, so without the worry of being taken out in a crackdown, the thinking is that heavily-vetted new authorities may become bolder in pushing forth much-needed reforms.

Xi's supporters have said the anti-graft investigations are necessary to get rid of bad actors, while critics say it's merely house-cleaning of opponents. Either way, a major twice-in-a-decade leadership shuffle this fall is set to take place, and that's the turning point.

"These [new] officials have been carefully, carefully scrutinized before they are appointed, so they are clean," Li said. "They are not worried about becoming targets of anti-corruption investigations."

Li's so bullish that he even said he expects China's economy to grow as much as 7 percent next year, and around 6.7 percent this year. While that would still represent the country's slowest pace of growth in about a quarter of a century, it would match what China posted in 2016, and perhaps mark the start of growth acceleration.

Continued strength and optimism in China is also marked by increasingly sophisticated consumers with greater spending power than ever.

Chinese today are more aware of what they're buying, and are starting to seek better goods rather than cheaper or counterfeit items, said Gao Hongbing, an Alibaba Group vice president, during a World Economic Forum event.

"I think they've lost interest," Gao said of the mainstream Chinese consumer's attention to knock-offs. "Therefore, they like more high-quality and genuine products."

And despite uncertainties, Chinese CEOs are still willing to invest now for the future, according to a KPMG study heralded during the meeting. While top executives from the U.S. and Europe are looking to their own domestic economies to seek growth, ones from Asia are looking to international markets, according to the study. Chinese CEOs in particular are interested in Australia, Germany and the U.K. as overseas destinations for growth.

Still, in the short term, experts say Beijing must contend with a collection of domestic concerns, such as a housing bubble and debt levels.

At next year's Summer Davos — set to be held in the Chinese city of Tianjin — perhaps some of those challenges will have seen new solutions.

—CNBC's Geoff Cutmore and Everett Rosenfeld contributed to this report.

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