G20 Summit showcases China on a global stage

There is a lot more to hosting the G20 Summit than meets the eye. For China there was many layers of influence to exert, writes Tom Pattinson

Last month, the Chinese city of Hangzhou saw factories closed, traffic diverted and non-essential civil servants sent packing on paid leave to further empty the often congested streets. All this for the G20 Summit – the first time China had hosted this annual international forum for leaders of the world’s largest economies.

China has plenty of experience in state-managing cities during run-ups to major events. Streets were re-paved and flowers planted along the Olympic Committee route in 2000, when the delegation came to inspect the city. The 2006 China-Africa Summit saw the first use of firing rockets to seed clouds and clear skies – something also used throughout the 2008 Olympic Games. Factories were closed and cars taken off the streets to create what became known as “APEC Blue” skies, preparing for the 2014 gathering of world leaders – and then again during the following year’s military parades.

During the recent G20, the usual process of closing factories, clearing roads and encouraging people to leave the city was designed to leave visiting dignitaries with the best impression possible. However, banning the dancing grannies and the public from spitting might not have been enough. American President Barack Obama was forced to exit from the belly of Air Force One after a communication breakdown led to the airline staircase never turning up.

The G20 was big on showmanship. Artists and dancers performed Swan Lake beneath lightshows and firework displays on Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. But below the shiny surface, what was the event’s actual substance?

China showed great confidence at the summit. Whether or not the staircase incident was accidental, China was illustrating its world influence. Much fanfare was given to Xi’s opening and closing remarks about China’s powerful economic campaigns including the Belt and Road project and the newly formed AIIB, which will be instrumental in funding the massive transport and trade initiative.

The many leaders from developing countries were surely in awe of China’s economic power. The country wanted to reassure these African and Asian presidents about its commitment to inclusiveness and development. However, patchy internet, limited freedom of movement, and occasional conflicts between international journalists and local officials didn’t sit as well with those expecting the G20 access levels they had gotten used to. 

President Xi’s final communique focused heavily on Chinese economic issues such as policy coordination, innovative economic growth, financial and economic governance, trade and investment, and development. And whilst the ratification of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change signed by both Xi and Obama was a summit highlight, other major global issues such as the environment, terrorism, the Syrian conflict, and the refugee crisis drew little attention and achieved few results.

The country regarded the summit as a major success, and for its domestic audience and guests from developing nations, it may have served its purpose. However, as a growing world power, China should focus on its global role as well as its domestic image.