Apple Inc.’s

Tim Cook
took the stage Saturday at an economic conference in Beijing sponsored by the Chinese government, giving an upbeat talk that was welcomed with applause. 

The treatment his counterpart at TikTok received days earlier in Washington couldn’t have been more different: hours of questioning by lawmakers over the short-video platform’s links to Beijing.

Mr. Cook, making his first known visit to China since the pandemic began, spoke for about half an hour in an exchange with a former official of the forum’s organizer from a TED Talk-style stage set up in Beijing’s historical Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.

“I am thrilled to be back in China,” the chief executive told the China Development Forum, hosted by a research center of the State Council. “It means the world to me and I feel really privileged to be here.”

Mr. Cook spoke about how Apple and China have grown together over the three decades since the company entered the country—which it has relied on both as a manufacturing hub as well as a rapidly growing consumer market. “This has been a symbiotic kind of relationship that we have both enjoyed,” he said. 

He also answered questions about the importance of education from Lu Mai, a former official of the China Development Research Foundation, the forum’s organizer. Mr. Cook said Apple is committing 100 million yuan, equivalent to around $14.6 million, to help fund educational projects run by the foundation, a unit affiliated to the State Council’s research center. 

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified during a U.S. House committee hearing in Washington Thursday.

Photo: Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Like Mr. Cook, TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew runs one of the world’s most high-profile tech services. TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd. That puts it at the center of the growing strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, with bilateral relations at their lowest point in decades.

During a House hearing that ran for more than five hours on Thursday, Mr. Chew—a Singaporean national—was subject to withering attacks on TikTok as he tried to make his case that the company would earn lawmakers’ trust. 

In a rare bipartisan display, Democrats and Republicans repeatedly questioned him over similar issues, at times not allowing him to finish sentences. TikTok later said that political grandstanding had dominated the hearing. 

Apple didn’t immediately respond when asked why it was important that Mr. Cook attended the Chinese-government sponsored conference at a time when U.S.-China tensions are on the rise. In 2017, Mr. Cook said it was important not to be a bystander in China if you want to achieve change. This is his fifth time attending the annual forum, the foundation’s Mr. Lu said.

Mr. Cook is among the dozens of American and other foreign executives attending, or set to attend, the three-day conference that started Saturday. This year’s forum comes as China seeks foreign investment to revive its stuttering economic recovery, while at the same time relations with its biggest trading partners in the West have soured.

For U.S. business leaders, the risk of potential fallout from being seen hobnobbing in Beijing is high, given how senior American government officials have held off from visiting China. In February, Washington indefinitely postponed a visit to Beijing by Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

after a suspected Chinese spy balloon drifted over the U.S.

In some of the sessions Saturday, the geopolitical tensions loomed as the elephant in the room. On stage, many multinational executives didn’t touch on the implications for businesses of worsening relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

Qualcomm Inc.

Cristiano Amon
focused his talk on the digital transformation and 5G, and their potential to boost businesses and productivity in society as a whole. When asked later by The Wall Street Journal how he felt about visiting China as political ties sour, Mr. Amon responded with a smile and a “thank you” as he walked away.

In a session on rebuilding supply chains, multinational businesses were represented by top executives from Australian and German companies.

Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon attended the development forum in Beijing Saturday.


In other sessions, senior advisers to the Chinese government largely stuck to topics deemed by Beijing as essential to the country’s economic future, including carbon neutrality, technology innovation and healthcare.

Still, some ventured further, pointing to high inflation and the banking crisis as two risks to the global economy emanating from the U.S. At the same time, they touted Beijing’s ability to manage its debt and economic headwinds.

“Some developed countries sharply tightened their monetary policies, which brought spillover effects such as bank bankruptcy, foreign debt difficulties, and financial market turmoil,” said

Han Wenxiu,
a deputy head of the General Office of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission. 

Among the handful of foreign speakers to tackle the geopolitical strain head on was

Craig Allen,
president of the U.S.-China Business Council, which advises and lobbies for American companies operating in the country. 

In a session on China’s business environment, Mr. Allen listed the rising risks facing U.S. companies. Those included political, regulatory and economic risks, as well as risks related to China’s technology and economic policies to increase self-reliance. 

“Due to growing costs, due to growing risks, due to perceptions of lower growth, it is becoming more difficult for CEOs to convince their boards to make large investments in China,” he said.

Write to Yoko Kubota at