When China hosted a World Economic Forum on the new champions of business, talk of global growth was marred by inevitable international tensions
As your plane from Beijing drops in towards Dalian in north-east China, it's hard to miss the rust-belt symptoms blurring by below—the empty dockyards, geriatric steelworks, obsolete refineries. But there's something distinctly 21st century about the way you are ushered through the airport, even allowing for the fact that a number of us were on our way to the high-profile World Economic Forum's inaugural convening of what it calls "the new champions".
By the forum's own estimates, we were among 1,800 participants from 90 countries, all fascinated to see what would happen when the much-vaunted "Davos Spirit" was transplanted to China—and to Dalian in particular. The place is rich in history, much of it uncomfortable. The Russians were here, then the Japanese. Later, the fact that so many people spoke Japanese helped Dalian attract inward investment from Japan, spurring local high-tech clusters.
So who are these new champions in the spotlight? They include businesses, cities or governments, but the critical group comprises a new generation of companies that the forum believes will change the global landscape. "These business champions," it explains, "come primarily from rapidly growing emerging markets, such as China and India, but also include fast movers from developed economies."
All something of a contrast to the Mattel saga that hung over the summit, with the tribulations of the toy firm and its Chinese suppliers a symptom of what can happen when globalisation outruns governance. The suicide of Zhang Shuhong, the Chinese toy factory owner at the epicentre of the scandal over lead-tainted Sesame Street figures, was the second recent scandal revolving around the "made in China" label, the first being the execution of the former head of the food and drug watchdog.
Efforts are certainly being made to curb the growing tide of health abuses and environmental destruction. Indeed, the first copy of the China Daily I picked up reported that more than 750 industrial firms had been shut down—or ordered to improve their environmental standards—following a two-month campaign by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). Pan Yue, deputy minister at SEPA, was quoted as saying: "The campaign was only run on a small scale. We still have a long way to go to curb the nationwide industrial expansion, which demands high volumes of energy and creates huge amounts of pollution."
The sessions I moderated in Dalian covered regulatory risk, green technology, sustainable cities and venture philanthropy. And it was remarkable how much the sustainability agenda is shot through everything. In his summing up, WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab stressed that the "spirit of Dalian" was "the spirit of entrepreneurialism and the spirit of social engagement". And a highlight of the summit was the unveiling of a new initiative, with Professor Schwab welcoming 125 founding members to the "community of global growth companies". These fast-growing firms, said Dai Xianglong, Mayor of Tianjin, will gather for the second annual meeting of the new champions in his city next September. Tianjin was a flashpoint for the second opium war, at the end of which a treaty was signed opening Tianjin to foreign trade-including opium.
Today's simmering geopolitical tensions only broke the surface once, in a session on "soft power"—and how China can use it to influence the wider world. When journalist Tom Friedman challenged Chinese panellists over their country's failure to help rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions, Sha Zukang, a UN under-secretary, shot back angrily that it was wrong to label China as a "free-rider". China supports the election of leaders and equality of people, he insisted. On the subject of Sudan, he said: "There is the impression that China is there for oil only—that is the biggest lie I've ever heard."
Clearly, globalisation may be flattening our world, but there are plenty of speed-bumps out there, and some mountain ranges to be crossed, too.