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Greetings again from Guangzhou, China, where security at the magisterial Shangri-la Hotel was intense Wednesday morning surrounding the visit of Vice-Premier Wang Yang, the country’s fourth-ranking government official.
It was a day of subtle messaging, hopefulness about the future, and a show of might by the roaring Chinese economy. Wang, a former governor of Guangdong province, of which Guangzhou is the capital, addressed the Fortune Global Forum and hit notes of trade openness similar to the speech President Xi Jinping gave at Davos in January. It’s an extraordinary and complicated message. On the one hand, China is closed to outsiders when it wants to be. On the other, and despite this, China truly is engaged in the global economy. China’s era of commercial and diplomatic isolation ended years ago.
China’s leading commercial ambassador, Alibaba (BABA) Executive Chairman Jack Ma, ran through some of his greatest hits of inspirational slogans, including that work should be fun and that he wants to die on the beach, not in the office. A canny communicator capable of minding multiple audiences simultaneously, Ma praised the “stability” of the Chinese government, professed his respect for chief rival Tencent and its CEO, Pony Ma, and suggested that because Alibaba enables the commerce of other merchants it can’t be a monopoly.
Pony Ma, whom I interviewed a few hours later, didn’t quite return Jack Ma’s praise. (The two aren’t related.) Jack Ma is famously eloquent in English and in Chinese, and Pony Ma is equally famous for his reserve. But Ma, speaking in Chinese through simultaneous translation, wowed the audience with his vision of the future, his explanation of how WeChat became the ubiquitous communication tool it is today in China, and how Tencent innovates. As for Alibaba, Pony Ma suggested his company’s competitor behaves like an all-powerful landlord that can raise the rent any time it wants.
Tim Cook, speaking for the first time at a Fortune conference, gave a lively review of Apple’s (AAPL) business in China, his faith that iPhones are superior to up-and-coming smartphone competitors here, and reflected on the change he has seen in China since he started visiting regularly 25 years ago. Cook also gave a spirited defense of his decision to appear at a conference earlier in the week hosted by China’s chief censor, invoking Teddy Roosevelt’s preference for being “in the arena” over watching from the sidelines.
Early Wednesday morning, at the conclusion of Brainstorm Tech International, a conference Fortune hosted before the Global Forum began, I interviewed Neil Shen, head of Sequoia Capital China. Shen is a triple threat: a former entrepreneur (he founded travel company Ctrip), a Wall Street banker, and now an investor whose hits include JD.com, Alibaba, drone maker DJI, and e-commerce dynamo Meituan.
Shen thinks that for all the attention Westerners are paying to China, they still haven’t truly accepted that it’s not a copycat technology country anymore. Meituan is a perfect example: Once known as the “Groupon of China,” its innovations have made it a lasting success long after Groupon faded from view.
We’re just midway through a packed and fascinating week. Don’t forget to check out Fortune.com for full coverage of both conferences, including videos of the interviews.