By Clare Melford, CEO, IBLF
I spent last week in China at a range of events including the World Economic Forum’s Meeting of the New Champions, otherwise known as Summer Davos.
The WEF summit was dominated by the game of “what did Premier Wen really mean in his opening speech”. Wen Jiabao used the occasion to list his litany of achievements during his ten years in office before he steps down next spring. This was interpreted variously as “typical politician trying to justify his record”; “terrible consolation prize for having made no liberalising reforms towards democracy in his ten years”; “a warning shot to the next generation of leaders not to take China’s economic progress backwards”. It seemed clear that he was this year targeting his own party rather than last year where he had clearly sent warning messages through the speech to the political leaders of the US and Europe for not resolving their economic malaise while stressing that China’s growth needed to become sustainable.
The other big question at WEF was the whereabouts of Xi Jingping, the next leader, who has not been seen for several weeks and has cancelled a number of high-level meetings for a “back problem”. The answer to the question of “where is Xi?” is, according to WEF wags, “Hu knows.”
I had a great opportunity of speaking on a very high level panel called “China Globalisers” with the vice Chair of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) and the CEOs of TCL (one of the largest electronics groups) and Trina Solar (a solar panel maker currently under investigation by the EU for dumping). It was an ideal topic for IBLF to be associated with as there is increasing concern in China about the challenges Chinese companies face abroad. The calibre of my fellow panellists demonstrates that IBLF, through the China Business Leaders Forum (CBLF), is beginning to be accepted and perhaps respected by the Chinese business and government community. This was reinforced by a private meeting we were able to secure with the Vice Chair of SASAC.
The week concluded with a dinner in Beijing with the Unilever CEO Paul Polman and six or seven Chinese business leaders. Mr Polman had agreed to do this for CBLF as he wanted to meet a range of Chinese business leaders in a more intimate setting than he is usually afforded given his status. He was particularly interested to share experiences of trying to make companies sustainable. The conversation was very progressive, with all the Chinese CEOs expressing admiration for Unilever’s strategy and a shared view of the importance of social and particularly environmental sustainability. There was shared frustration around the table at the lack of progress of governments in supporting sustainable development. In China this takes the form of a lack of enforcement of the regulations (which are fairly progressive, such as compulsory CSR reporting for state owned companies). There was much talk of the powerlessness of the central government to enforce laws in regions.
Another high impact event for CBLF and one that will stand us in good stead with several Chinese companies we had not previously met.