Wu Bangguo

A corporate beauty pageant for foreign investors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 April, 2007, 12:00am


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Shark fin soup on the menu at a conference dedicated to sustainability and relaxed Australian former prime minister Bob Hawke crooning Waltzing Matilda at a Mengniu Dairy cocktail hour, the Boao Forum on Asia is still grappling for an identity.

Many of the delegates at the 1,300-strong grouping of businessmen, politicians and luminaries said the event was definitely getting better each year. They pointed to strong representation from the mainland's best companies and entrepreneurs, such as China Mobile and Broad Air Conditioning, whose president, Zhang Yue, won repeated applause for his environmental efforts.

But some delegates wondered about the direction of the forum, the brainchild of former President Jiang Zemin , now in its eighth year.

Among absentees were Commerce Minister Bo Xilai and Pan Yue, Vice-Minister in the State Environmental Protection Administration. National People's Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo was the most senior Beijing leader present. 'It'd be great to see even stronger representation from Beijing,' said a veteran delegate.

While touting the virtues of sustainability, co-operation and innovation, Boao remains a corporate beauty pageant for many foreign investors. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Starbucks' Jim Donald were at hand to fly their respective flags.

Others suggested more work was needed to ensure greater representation of businessmen and opinion-makers from the wider region. Aside from Boao regular, Li & Fung Group chairman Victor Fung Kwok-king, Hong Kong business leaders were thin on the ground, for example. Leading Thais, Japanese and Singaporeans were also notably lacking.

'It's all a bit patchy year by year ... you never know what you are going to get,' said one regular, an Indian investor. 'This could really be something if it had a much wider range of people. ... There is nothing else potentially like it around.'

Officially, it is a forum for Asia, but China dominates discussions.

Some of the sessions struggled to provide lively debate. A seminar on 'universal banking' degenerated into a complaints about queues and toilets at Bank of China branches. The conference handbook instructs media not to ask questions during discussions, despite one seminar seeking to promote Asia's 'harmonious media'.

Among those hoping the event can continue to grow and prosper are Boao residents. The forum is the only time of the year the purpose-built hotels, villas and golf course are anywhere near full.

Additional reporting by Neil Gough