A Mixed Meeting in Davos

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You needed to have your wits about you at this year's meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and not just because the Alpine resort's sidewalks had been rendered glass-like by a dump of snow just before the proceedings began. (The skiing, since you ask, was fabulous.) Blink too quickly, and you'd miss the founders of Google at a reception for the Australian Prime Minister; or Al Gore, Shimon Peres and the head of Iran's central bank scurrying to separate meetings in a crowded hotel lobby while Bill Gates conducted interviews in a room just above them. And then there were the celebs: Angelina Jolie and Sharon Stone; Peter Gabriel and Bono; Lionel Richie (if he still counts as one) and Richard Gere, whose white hair gave him the air of a distinguished professor parachuted in to elucidate the theory of comparative advantage.

Yet if this year's Davos was more star-struck than ever, it also returned to its European roots. Busy with their jobs in the second Bush Administration, key U.S. policymakers like Vice President Dick Cheney (last year's headliner) stayed home. Though a gaggle of senators graced the proceedings, the senior Administration figure present was Robert Zoellick, the new deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. By contrast, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and Germany's Chancellor Gerhard SchrAPder gave major speeches. And Europe's new hero, Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko, used Davos as a chance to claim his nation's place as a fully-fledged European democracy.

With the absence of senior U.S. officials, there were few of the rancorous debates between Americans and Europeans over U.S. policy—especially the war in Iraq—that had marked the last two years, and less of a focus on the war against terrorism as the defining issue of our time. Instead, led by Blair, the Europeans pushed their own agenda, especially the need to increase foreign aid programs to meet the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and reducing infant mortality and disease by 2015. The Europeans were supported not just by philanthropists like Gates (whose foundation has just pledged a second grant of $750 million to fund vaccinations in the developing world) but also by the stars. In the week's most dramatic gesture, Stone stood up in a plenary session, said she would donate $10,000 to fight malaria, and challenged others to do the same; within a few hours Stone announced that $1 million had been pledged.

If aid to the developing world was an issue on which real, measurable progress was made, a second key theme never came into focus. Looming large over the proceedings like a distant snow-covered peak, tempting and mysterious, was China. For the western business leaders in Davos, China's breakneck economic growth represented both an opportunity—1.3 billion consumers!—and a threat—1.3 billion cheap workers! C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics in Washington D.C., argued that integrating China into the global economy poses novel problems. Never before, he said, has such a significant player also been poor—in terms of wealth per head—and at the same time neither a genuine free-market economy nor a democracy. Investors seemed similarly perplexed by China, speaking as much of the frustrations of doing business there as of the thrill of taking part in the biggest boom on the planet.

Those hoping for concrete indications of how China will develop were looking forward to a speech on Saturday by Huang Ju, a Vice-Premier of China's state council and the highest-ranking Chinese official at Davos. It was an opportunity missed. In stilted language that would not have been out of place in a speech given 30 years ago ("our relentless efforts for institutional innovation have lent a strong impetus to socio-economic development"), Huang gave a long overview of China's economic policies without confronting, until challenged by questions, the issues of intellectual property rights and China's exchange rate policy. Yet it is precisely such matters on which foreign investors want to hear clear, unequivocal policies from Beijing. As for the seminal question of whether China's economy can continue to steam ahead without the transparency and accountability that come with democracy and the rule of law, Huang was almost entirely silent, save to say that by 2020, China would have "an improved democracy system" and that its people would enjoy "a better life in a more harmonious society."

Still, it is one of the charms of Davos that there's always a second chance. Not long ago, questions of poverty and disease were the province of only a minority of attendees; this year, they were center stage. In time, perhaps, more Chinese leaders will make their way up the mountain, and engage in the open and honest dialogue that makes Davos, at its best, without peer as a gathering to discuss the global agenda. But if the Chinese really want to make an impact in Davos, they need to bring along a celebrity of their own. Surely Zhang Ziyi could spare a week away from filming each January?