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Davos is more than an alpine gabfest

By Giles Chance | China Daily European Weekly | Updated: 2012-01-20 10:27

It's time for Davos again. At the end of each January the meetings of the World Economic Forum in a small town in the Swiss Alps bring representatives from more than 1,000 of the world's largest businesses together with leading politicians, statesmen and selected figures from academia, media, and the arts. Each year forum guests are treated to a wide range of discussions stretching over five days centering on global economic and political issues. The conferences have become a barometer of how the world feels about itself at the end of January each year.

In 2009 the theme was "Shaping the Post-Crisis World". In 2010 this became "Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild". Last year we had "Shared Norms for the New Reality". This year the big idea is "The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models".

It is tempting to dismiss these phrases as grandiose and empty, and the World Economic Forum as a grand talking-shop, all snowflakes and champagne, a five-day celebrity fashion show where people go to be seen, and to interact with the all-important media. Did the Davos exhortation in 2010 to "Improve the State of the World" ever get further than the front door of a five-star hotel? Was the post-crisis world really reshaped in any way as a result of the 2009 forum?

On the other hand, one cannot deny that bringing together some of the world's most influential people for a few days must yield some important benefits. The opportunity to sit and talk with one's opposite number or someone from another country you have always wanted to meet must be worth something. And perhaps some of those interactive conference sessions really do start thought processes in the heads of people with enough power to get something important started.

What about "The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models"? What "transformation"? And which "models"? Looking at how the conference has evolved, from 150 sessions in 2009 to more than 200 in 2012, two things are clear: everyone can see that things have to change, and that there is more need to meet and talk today than there was when the old model still seemed to be working.

The 2008 crisis did not just make one big Wall Street firm bankrupt; it changed the economic and political balance of power in the world. The US remains the world's most vibrant large economy and the standard-bearer for innovation. But its huge and growing debt load has weakened its economy and its credit to the point that it can no longer pretend to stand head and shoulders in economic terms above its peers. Even more dramatically, the sight of big US financial institutions on their knees praying for deliverance from bankruptcy has left an indelible mark on the consciousness of politicians and bankers worldwide whose worship of the US economic and financial system has disappeared.

The new economic weakness and debt dependency of the US has turned a one-superpower world into a multilateral world in which a number of countries and cultures have the opportunity to exercise considerable influence over global affairs. The US no longer has the economic clout to dominate its peers. Meanwhile, Europe faces some kind of major crisis, even economic collapse.

But what comes next? That is presumably what this year's theme, "The Great Transformation", is supposed to uncover. The conference program gives some clues. In January 2010, when the theme of the conference was "Improve the State of the World", the nearest the program got to a focus on the so-called newly emerging countries was a few sessions on "The Rise of Asia", "Toward an East Asian Community", "US-China Reshaping the Global Agenda" and "Will India meet Global Expectations"?

A year later, as the limits of central-bank money printing were becoming evident to the more far-sighted, a different tone had begun to creep in, with a series of "insights" on emerging parts of the world, and a number of sessions specifically focused on China, like "The Future of Chinese Enterprise", "China's Impact on Global Trade and Growth" and "The New Realities of Modern China". Suddenly the world, as seen through the Davos lens, wanted to know more about China.

This year's conference extends the focus from the year before on the emerging world, with six sessions devoted to discussion of specifically Chinese topics, including "The New Context in China", "Government Transformations in China", "Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power" and a session organized by the China-European International Business School in Shanghai: "New Leadership Models from China". It is as if the developed world, with its own model badly damaged or broken, has started to search elsewhere for new paradigms and models for business, economics and peaceful co-existence. Can China provide the keys to the achievement of sustainable, peaceful growth that the rest of the world is looking for? Can China provide any of the solutions to "The Great Transformation; Shaping New Models"?

A Chinese answer to this question might be "We're too busy worrying about our own problems to think about anyone else's", and the more uncharitable might add, "If the rich world has got problems, that's its fault, not ours". But, of course, everyone can see now that China is like a half-grown elephant in a room. An inward-looking attitude to China's future ignores the obvious fact that it needs the whole world to sustain and continue its development, while clearly the rest of the world increasingly needs China. The great challenge for China and its partners is to enable its continued rise to occur peacefully, and for the enormous benefits from its emergence to be well distributed between it and the rest of the world.

The Sino-US relationship underpins China's relationship with the rest of the world. Last year the US brought an end to the struggle with terrorism that began with the September 11 attacks in 2001, and which had dominated US foreign and military policy since, by disposing of Osama bin Laden and by pulling its last soldiers out of Iraq. In a recent policy speech at the Pentagon, US President Barack Obama did not mention China once; but he made it clear that the new focus of US foreign policy is in the Pacific, where the US will look to maintain its traditional position of influence in the presence of an expanding China.

The potential dangers of a Pacific build-up provides just one example of the increasing need for China to share its own perceptions and its motives with its partners around the world. The world has to learn to accommodate China, and China, for its part, has to help the world to do this. The Chinese relationship with the US has been one of the great success stories of modern diplomacy. If it continues to develop, it can provide the bedrock for China's accommodation into the world. But if it fails to grow it can unlock forces powerful enough to destroy the possibility of peaceful global development.

In 1792, as it became increasingly difficult for Britain to acquire the silver that Chinese merchants demanded as payment for their growing exports of tea to the West, the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, started his two-year trip to China with the purpose of initiating peaceful relations based on trade. But the Chinese Emperor Qianlong was unable to contemplate a new, different kind of world, and rejected the British approach. The British may not have been in the right, and the Chinese in the wrong, but the mutual failure to accommodate the other side's position and perspective led to China's destruction and humiliation.

Today China on its own cannot provide the answers the rest of the world is seeking. But if China can learn from its history, and if China and the rest of the world, particularly the US, can continue to develop mutual understanding, appreciation and respect, then China's huge potential can provide the foundation for "The Great Transformation", a world of peace and prosperity. If the Davos conference helps foster this relationship between China and its partners around the world, then the World Economic Forum will have proved itself to be much more than a fashionable talking-shop.

The author is visiting professor at the Guanghua School of Business, Peking University. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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