Friday 6 December 2019

As the West's politics buckle China's Xi gets to put stamp on Davos

Chinese president Xi Jinping
Chinese president Xi Jinping

Enda Curran

Never before has the gap between Davos Man and the real world yawned so widely.

The top executives, financiers, academics and politicians making their way up the Swiss mountain to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum will be talking a lot about such non-establishment leaders as US President-elect Donald Trump, France's National Front chief Marine Le Pen and Italian populist Beppe Grillo of the Five Star Movement.

But they won't be meeting them. Not one of the leaders bent on overturning the world order as Davos has designed it will be present.

In an extraordinary twist it falls instead to Mr Xi Jinping, president of nominally communist China to addresses business elites at Davos.

The Chinese president will find himself an unlikely champion of the trade-based global order Mr Trump has derided. His new role could prove to be one of his biggest tests.

Today, Mr Xi will become the first Chinese head of state to address the World Economic Forum, a speech a top diplomat said would give a "blueprint for the future progress of human society".

His remarks in the Swiss ski town come days before Mr Trump's inauguration as US president, after an election that called into question America's commitment to free trade and threw the business world into a bout of soul-searching.

Mr Xi's presence marks a chance to cement China's clout after decades of US economic and military dominance. Facing a more protectionist, inward-looking Mr Trump administration and a disruptive British exit from the European Union, Mr Xi has been offering assurances that the world's largest trading nation will defend the structures that have fostered globalisation and economic growth.

What remains to be seen is how far Mr Xi will go toward filling any gap left by Mr Trump on the world stage.

Because it is Mr Trump, and the other Western political upstarts who will loom over the proceedings. The incoming US president won't have an official representative there, but has expressed strong feelings about some of the countries sending delegations, including his own.

Europe's populist leaders, for their part, have their own view of the annual gathering of the rich, the powerful, the famous and the sycophantic.

Attendees appear to be less focused on Mr Trump's presidency or on upcoming elections in France, the Netherlands, Germany and possibly Italy than on other global concerns.

The forum's annual survey of members on the most likely risks for 2017 found that "extreme weather events" was the top worry. "Failed national governance", the closest category to such surprise events last year as Brexit and Mr Trump's election, wasn't in the top five, although it placed third in 2015.

What attendees will be paying attention to is the delegation from China, the largest yet to attend the forum.

One thing that's not new at Davos: the share of female attendees. At 20pc, it's marginally higher than in previous years, but progress has been slow.

One thing that's up: revenue for the WEF itself. Payments from partnerships - the corporations and consulting firms that take centre stage at Davos - was up 25pc over the previous year.

Memberships and participation income was flat but the organisation enjoyed an overall increase of 14pc.

Irish Independent

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