For the past four decades, heads of state, celebrities and business elite have convened at the World Economic Forum, the yearly pilgrimage that merges debates on international problems with days of fanfare in the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland.
This year, former New York City mayor and financial media billionaire Michael Bloomberg is debuting a conference to rival the Davos conference, one he and his partners say will focus on the changing global economy and the need for greater understanding between the United States and China.
Enter: The New Economy Forum.
“Now more than ever, we need a new convening platform to bring world leaders across the public and private sectors together to assess the risks and opportunities created by the emerging global order,” Bloomberg said in a statement.
The Forum will bring 400 world and business leaders to Beijing for two days in November to address topics such as technology, global governance and urbanization. Bloomberg is partnering with the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, a Beijing-based “think tank with Chinese characteristics” and which is led by former state vice premier, Zeng Peiyan, who will co-chair the forum’s advisory board.
Bloomberg also tapped former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, as well as former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, to drive the Forum’s content and design. Advisory board members include former Secretary-General of the U.N. Ban Ki-moon, President Trump’s former top economic adviser Gary Cohn and Janet Yellen, former chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Leaders of eleven other corporations and institutions have signed on as partners.
In an interview with The Financial Times, Bloomberg, who could not be reached for comment, said the Beijing forum would emphasize “actionable solutions” with the help of public and private sector leaders from developed and emerging economies. Unlike Davos, Bloomberg said his forum is not meant to be a lavish party “where you go and have dinner with everybody and hobnob with movie stars.”
“Davos has been around for a long time: It is a very big conference ,and it is focused on lots of world problems,” Bloomberg told the FT. “This conference is focused on the world and China as an emerging power and how we all work together.”
Still, the rise of a new forum has cast further scrutiny on the role of elite summits in solving international problems.
Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” said that while World Economic Forum could use a competitor, Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum has “critical deficiencies.” Chief among them are the forum’s location and the leadership of Kissinger and Paulson, Chang said.
Chang cast doubt on whether China would allow voices critical of the government and its policies at the forum, noting that the state controls who will be issued visas to attend. If the forum were held outside of China, Chang said that alone would aid transparency and meaningful conversations.
Moreover, Chang said that if the forum is committed to finding new ways of tackling the U.S.-China relationship, looking to Kissinger and Paulson — architects of decades of American diplomacy toward China — is not the way to go about it.
“I can understand there’s a lot of competing considerations when one thinks about the relationship between the U.S. and China,” Chang said, “but you’re not going to have a full airing of those in a Paulson-Kissinger-Bloomberg extravaganza in the heart of Chinese power.”
For Guy Standing, an economics professor at SOAS University of London, the Beijing forum serves as the latest example of a closed-door summit among the world’s elite. Standing, who has attended Davos twice, said he would have urged Bloomberg to direct this money into grass-roots movements to address inequality and economic insecurity.
Instead, the November conference will serve as another gathering of elites “carving out policy and influence and bypassing anything closely resembling democratic processes,” Standing said.
Standing noted a Bloomberg interview in which he told the FT that his conference would focus on the world, China as an emerging power, and “how we all work together.”
“Who is the we?” Standing said. “Is it going to be you and me? I somehow doubt it.”