World Economic Forum

SAR gets short shrift in Davos' diplomatic plays

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 February, 1998, 12:00am

There are some things you just do not mention at a discreet power meeting like the World Economic Forum in Davos.

For instance, however great the temptation, nobody was going to utter the name of Monica Lewinsky when Hillary Clinton put in her appearance at a public session yesterday.

More significantly, perhaps, given the regiment of smart-suited economic experts who shuttle between the discussion panels on the future of the world, nobody liked to raise the question of what was not mentioned at last year's meeting of the international thinkfest.

Nobody, that is, except one intrepid reporter who asked a panel made up of a banker, two professors and a leading analyst why they had not even mentioned the possibility of an Asian financial crisis at last year's session.

After an awkward silence, Kenneth Courtis of Deutsche Bank Group Asia said he seemed to remember that they had mentioned South Korea.

Ah yes, and what about Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia . . .? Time for the next question.

This year, one of the absent subjects is Hong Kong.

At last year's session, the participants from the soon-to-be SAR were assured of an attentive audience for their views on what was going to happen after July 1.

This year, some of the region's business heavyweights have made the journey to the Swiss Alps, but hardly a mention of Hong Kong has been heard in the six days of meetings.

'No political crisis, no arrests, no PLA in the streets and a currency and stock market that look much stronger than anywhere else in the region,' as one American put it.

'How can you expect people to be interested?' President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is one of the few African leaders who gets high approval marks from the international financial community for his market reforms. However, he evidently has not seen much of Hong Kong.

At a dinner on Monday night, he mused on why Asians had - at least until the recent crisis - done so much better economically than Africans.

His answer? 'Asians are parsimonious, but Africans are extravagant - if they make any money they'll go out and buy a Mercedes.' He cannot have been car-counting in Central recently.

When Chinese Vice-Premier Li Lanqing first unveiled his country's infrastructure plans to an editors' breakfast on Sunday, he would not put a figure on the amount to be spent, but a member of the Chinese team spoke of US$30 billion.

But by the time the Vice-Premier made his formal speech to a plenary session of the World Economic Forum, he had attached a price tag of $750 billion.

In the question and answer session that followed, he was asked about financing the programme, and referred to spending of $750 million.

After all, what are three zeroes between friends? Still, the unofficial figure looks the most likely.

A passing remark by Mr Li at his breakfast with journalists gave a clue to the worries in Beijing about the amount of empty office space in the mainland.

The Vice-Premier revealed his department had recommended there should be no new office building by the government for three years. Pudong developers may take some heart.

As well as weighing the future of the world (the outlook seems pretty good, by the way, but then the Forum is heavily weighted with Americans), the Davos meeting also concerns itself with just about every subject under the sun - and keeps up its cultural juice with exhibitions by artists such as Hong Kong's Tao Ho.

Two topics that occupied attention yesterday were the extent of the United States' global influence and the information future of the world.

In both cases, the thinking heads stressed the importance of the English language - both as the universal tongue of the new information age and as the essential communication tool of business, politics and power.

Which led one Asian businessman to wonder, as we walked out of the session into the snow, whether the SAR should not be increasing rather than reducing the number of English-language schools.

Then he brightened up.

Perhaps investing in English schools for Hong Kong children in Vancouver looked like a good option, he reckoned.

Plainly, this was another case of adversity breeding opportunity.