Amid lightweight attendance, Boao struggles with crisis of relevance
THE BOAO FORUM is supposed to be the Davos of Asia, 'an intellectual resource centre dealing with regional and global issues from an Asian perspective', according to its chairman, former Philippine President Fidel Ramos. But as the event wound down yesterday, it was hard to escape the feeling it is little more than a giant, expensive exercise in giving face to China and a junket tour for former politicians who live out their days tripping from one resort to the next on the speaking circuit.
On its fifth birthday, the event is facing a crisis of relevance, with even the central government apparently unsure of its significance despite the fact that the 1,500 or so delegates are falling over themselves to eulogise the great feats of the Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps Beijing feels the country now has sufficient clout in the region that it no longer needs the explicit endorsement of its Asian neighbours and praise from global business leaders.
The attendance of Vice-President Zeng Qinghong saved this year's event from obscurity, but after brief meetings with Donald Tsang, the Japanese trade minister and Indonesia's vice-president, he was on his way back to Beijing.
Before his departure, he presumably also shook hands with such global powerbrokers as the president of Slovenia, the prime minister of Sri Lanka and the president of the Federated States of Micronesia.
Liu Mingkang, chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission and the second most important invited guest did not even show up.
The event kicked off formally on Saturday morning and was all but over by lunchtime yesterday as the sparkling halls of the purpose-built Sofitel convention centre returned to their usual deserted state and a hazy, tropical torpor infiltrated from the surrounding estuary. The Sofitel, its immaculate golf course and its neighbouring resorts report 5 per cent occupancy for the rest of the year so you can hardly blame the army of service staff for being completely overwhelmed by the event.
By all accounts, the venue is far better than the original one built to host the forum, which was abandoned after former President Jiang Zemin complained about his room. And the fact that it is a full two hours' drive from Haikou airport is a clever way of ensuring a focus for the occasion.
Delegates who had attended the event in previous years said this year's lineup was disappointing and that the forum needed powerful headline support from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to transform it into an obligatory political and business conference for the region, and eventually the world.
It clearly has the potential to match and - even one day surpass - Davos. But momentum first needs to be built by Beijing to attract high-profile political leaders and star entrepreneurs who will in turn attract the global heavyweights of the business world.
Delegates also complained about the lack of focus for the panel discussions, which covered a hodgepodge of topics from 'Why Doha must succeed' to 'Real estate development and its contribution to a harmonious society'.
This last topic illustrates why Boao must be attended by the top Chinese leadership but not dominated by the Chinese bureaucracy with its inbuilt abhorrence of any discussion that strays an inch from the party line.
This fear of robust dialogue was well illustrated following Vice-President Zeng's speech when Boao secretary-general Long Yongtu (the man who negotiated China's accession to the World Trade Organisation and who many people expect will soon retire) announced that Mr Zeng had graciously and spontaneously decided to answer three questions from the floor.
The pre-arranged questions were pure, unadulterated sycophancy - one on China's five-year plan, one on the great future of the forum itself and one from the local mayor on what Mr Zeng thought of Boao and the surrounding setting of Hainan Island.
Apart from the major corporate sponsors, there were relatively few top executives from global companies.
One notable attendee was the global chief executive of accounting giant Deloitte, which is mired in a potentially damaging scandal related to its auditing of troubled fridge manufacturer Guangdong Kelon and obviously sees the need for some serious lobbying. It was Deloitte's chief executive for Asia who asked the prepared question on the five-year plan which provided the vice-president with a chance to reiterate a few times the message of 'peaceful development' that has become Beijing's new mantra.
If China's president or premier attends next year's conference, it will provide the kind of backing that could really make Boao the Davos of Asia. If not, the event could become little more than a nice golf weekend for middle managers and minor politicians.