In the darkest moments of the financial crisis in 2008, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao lectured a group of US government officials and business executives in New York. “In the face of economic difficulties,” he said, “faith is more precious than gold.”

The Chinese economy then faltered. Today it is surging, facing the bleakest outlook in decades, and China’s leaders are struggling to learn just what Mr. Wen meant.

Beijing unveiled a 31-point set of guidelines on Wednesday to boost the confidence of the private sector. After three years in which the government has suppressed private companies, stifled innovation and elevated state-owned enterprises, the document represents a virtual concession by the Communist Party that its campaign has failed spectacularly.

Shares on the mainland and in Hong Kong, where many of China’s biggest private companies are listed, fell on Thursday but recovered their position on Friday. Some entrepreneurs rushed to praise the guidelines in official media. But privately, others I interviewed dismissed the party’s pep talk with words that can best be translated as: “Save it for the innocent.”

By now it is obvious that the country’s economic problems are rooted in politics. Restoring trust would require systemic changes that offer real protection of the entrepreneurial class and private property. If the party adheres to the political agenda of the country’s most important leader, Xi Jinping, who has dismantled many of the policies that freed China’s economy, its promises on paper will remain just words.

The stock markets’ reaction was very honest, said one tech entrepreneur. Investors felt how desperate the party was, he said, and how meaningless the guidelines were.

At its core, he said, the issue of trust is a matter of government credibility. Beijing has lost almost all of its credibility in recent years, he said. If it really wants to fix the situation, it can at least apologize for its wrongdoings. He cited a document that the party issued after the Cultural Revolution admitting some of its mistakes under the leadership of Mao Zedong from 1949 to 1976.

Other people pointed to similar steps the party had taken then, such as rehabilitation of persecuted cadres and intellectuals. At the very least, they said, the government should release Ren Zhiqiang and Sun Dawu, outspoken entrepreneurs who are serving 18-year prison sentences following their arrests in the recent crackdown.

Or, another entrepreneur told me, the government could return the fines it imposed on his company, which he believed served as punishment for not toeing the party line and as revenue for overstretched local government. He said he felt he had been robbed.

None of the business owners I spoke to expect the government to take any of these steps. They all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of punishment by the authorities.

The Communist Party has always been concerned about the wealth, influence and organizational skills of entrepreneurs. In the 1990s and 2000s, the party felt it needed a vibrant economy to rebuild its legitimacy after the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen protesters. The private sector has grown to contribute more than 50 percent of the country’s tax revenues, 60 percent of economic output and 80 percent of urban employment, according to none other than Mr. Xi in 2018.

But Mr. Xi is no fan of the capitalist class. His economic thinking can be best summed up in his slogan, “Bigger and stronger state-owned enterprises.” Under Mr. Xi, private companies and entrepreneurs have been under constant attack from both the government and online commentators.

The situation has worsened since the beginning of the pandemic. In recent years, China’s leadership has gone after the country’s largest private companies, vilified its most famous entrepreneurs, decimated entire industries through arbitrary regulation and refused to budge on Covid policies when many businesses were struggling.

In 2021, a commentary headlined, “Everyone can feel it, a deep transformation is underway!” was reinstated on many of the most important official media websites. Praising the suppression of the private sector and the policy proposal known as “shared prosperity,” the commentary said, “This is a return of capital groups to the masses, and a transformation from a capital-centered approach to a people-centered approach.”

But after abruptly ending its “zero Covid” policies last December, the government appeared to realize it needed the private sector to help revive the economy, which has suffered both the pandemic and the deterioration of China’s relations with the United States and other major trading partners. The rebound failed to meet expectations and business and consumer confidence declined.

“Why do many people save money and cut back on expenses? Why are ambitious entrepreneurs reluctant to make long-term planning and investment?” Sun Liping, sociology professor at Tsinghua University wrote in an article last month. “It’s because they feel anxious.” He said that for China to come out of its slump, the government must create a business environment that can provide peace of mind.

What the Chinese business community is getting is a charm offensive.

“We have always regarded private enterprises and entrepreneurs as part of our own,” Mr. Xi said in March, repeating itself from 2018. The head of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s economic planning agency, held a series of meetings with business leaders, pledging support.

Then came the 31-point guidelines. Most Chinese businessmen support the government and are happy to follow what it says. However, the comments of some entrepreneurs in state media read more like promises of loyalty to the party than genuine expressions of confidence.

Pony Ma, chief executive and chairman of the social media and gaming giant Tencent, wrote, “The central committee of the party attaches great importance to the private economy and private enterprises and has always treated us as part of its own,” echoing Mr. Xi. He promised to “adhere to our role as a ‘connector’, ‘toolbox’ and ‘assistant.’

Some entrepreneurs simply repeated a series of biased statements.

Li Shufu, founder of Geely, one of the largest car manufacturers in the world, said“As a private entrepreneur, we must strengthen our faith in development, further implement the ‘Eight-Eight Strategy,’ implement the ‘Sweet Potato Economy,’ take responsibility boldly and carry forward the ‘Four Thousand Spirits.'” The jargon was all from Mr. Xi’s instructions on how to develop the economy of Zhejiang province, where Geely is headquartered.

Lai Meisong, the chairman of ZTO Express, a delivery company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, said the guidelines made him “feel warm and inspired.” His company will remain grateful to the party and follow the party’s guidance, he said, echoing Mr. Xi who said in March, “When private enterprises face difficulties, we provide support, and when they encounter confusion, we offer guidance.”

Ben Qiu, a lawyer who practices law in Hong Kong and the United States, summed up the executives’ comments in a comment on social media: “The emperor’s clothes look fabulous.” Some people noted that most of the 31 points were not new. One goal that attracted a lot of attention was to “actively and sensibly carry out the work of development supporters” in the private sector. The guidelines asked entrepreneurs to be patriotic and support the leadership of the party over the work of the private sector.

China’s private sector began to develop in the 1990s when the government tried to separate the Communist Party from business. It wasn’t a completely fair time by any means – there was a lot of corruption. But the government tried to stay out of the way of the companies. No matter how many supportive words the party offers now, it will be difficult for the private sector to feel confident.

Mr. Sun, the Tsinghua sociologist, republished in May a speech he gave in 2018: “Private enterprises do not need support. They need a normal social environment” regulated by the rule of law.

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