Chengdu event shows quest for big numbers hard to shake
Publicity-driven grand signings for projects at Fortune Global Forum are at odds with leadership's push for a focus on sustainable development
For Chengdu, last week proved to be a busy one, and perhaps also cause for celebration by business. But for the rest of the China, it was rather disastrous in terms of how many lives of ordinary Chinese people were lost in various accidents.
I was in Chengdu for the 12th Fortune Global Forum, an annual business conference held by the US magazine Fortune in different countries and cities. Government officials told me Chengdu had prepared for the launch of the forum for about three years and wanted to make it the best ever. Indeed, I think the Chengdu government did make the forum the best ever, though at one point foreigners were astonished to see an army of immaculately dressed children, standing for hours to welcome foreign guests and government leaders in the lobby of a five-star hotel.
Among the dignitaries also welcomed was Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, who told the forum he believed China should not chase short-term economic numbers any more, since this may hurt its interests in long-term and more sustainable development.
Earlier last week in Beijing, when Premier Li Keqiang met a group of foreign corporate chief executives, he indicated that the government had lowered its expectations for gross domestic product growth, suggesting 7 per cent was acceptable, rather than 7.5 or 8 per cent.
But in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province, apparently local government leaders retain big ambitions for big numbers. Sichuan's provincial party chief Wang Dongming was proud to announce at one of many grand ceremonies in the city last week that dozens of new projects had been signed during the three-day forum. In his vision, the city's new slogan "Chengdu, Can do" may be perfectly reflected in the can-do spirit of those grand business numbers.
There's nothing wrong with attracting foreign investment. In fact, every country from the United States to South Africa wants to. But to put all those new projects together for endless grand signing ceremonies during just a three-day business forum (in my view, the influence of Fortune magazine has decreased sharply in recent years, in line with the troubled landscape of the US media industry), and then make the total number look great so local leaders can win praise from their upper-level leaders, seems like a show for publicity rather than for real productivity.
While Chengdu was holding the best-ever Fortune forum, many foreign guests were also shocked to hear about a number of accidents across the vast nation, including the factory fire in Jilin province that cost 120 lives on Monday and the bus explosion in Xiamen city that cost more than 40 lives on Friday.
"How can the factory in Jilin lock all the doors except just one when workers are working inside the workshop?" I was asked by a forum guest who was astonished by the tragedy.
I think it is a fair question and a reflection of unsustainable economic problems in China nowadays.
George Chen is the SCMP's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong