Talk ain’t cheap

Chinese ‘Davos’ is a pricey affair

Talk ain’t cheap

Both at Boao: Zhou and Paulson

Cadaqués was once a sleepy fishing village. Today it is a tourist destination on the Costa Brava, in part because of its association with artist Salvador Dali who built a home there. Previously, WiC has written about Xiamen’s own Cadaqués clone (WiC74). Beyond that, China knows a thing or two about the transformation of its own fishing villages. Most famous is Shenzhen, which in 1979 began its journey from obscurity to become one of the world’s biggest manufacturing cities.

But this month it was another former fishing village that was the focus of media attention: Boao.

Each year Boao hosts a Davos-like event for over a thousand plus movers-and-shakers. And the unlikely star of this month’s Forum – now in its eleventh year – was Gary Locke, the American ambassador. That’s thanks to a web posting by Chinese TV host Li Jiajia. She wrote: “Gary Locke arrived at the Boao Forum today. I thought that he would stay at a suite in the Forum’s venue – the five star Sofitel – but his staff told me, ‘No, they are too expensive. The price is three times the allowance that the US government permits for official travel, so the ambassador cannot stay at that hotel.’ Locke is booked into the Qianzhou Bay Resort.”

Li’s posting on weibo – China’s Twitter-equivalent – was forwarded 17,457 times and became the most talked about topic at the conference. It even led to an official response from China’s Ministry of Finance. The reason? Netizens were quick to contrast Locke’s behaviour with the more extravagant tastes of their own government officials, although the finance ministry then insisted that travel allowances for China’s bureaucrats were lower than US ones.

Cynical netizens blew raspberries at this response. “Where there is a rule, there is a way to get round it,” wrote one.

Of course it’s not the first time that netizens have focused on Locke as an honest and upstanding chap (see WiC119). But on this occasion, newspapers also used his ambassdarial sleeping arrangements to highlight how expensive Boao has become.

Over the past decade the must-attend event has become a cashcow for Boao Investment Holdings, the organiser. The Southern Metropolis Daily pointed out that invited guests now pay about Rmb15,000 to participate at Boao, with top spenders shelling out a further Rmb40,000 for a presidential suite at one of the venue’s main hotels.

For those not invited – but still desperate to attend for networking purposes – Rmb35,000 is required for a special entry pass.

And a sponsor told the newspaper: “To make a speech at the opening ceremony costs nearly Rmb10 million.”

Southern Metropolis Daily considers the whole affair a “rip-off” and also took aim at the supposedly lacklustre panel discussions at the event. It pointed out that at the roundtable discussion on manufacturing, Gree’s president Dong Mingzhu was so bored by fellow panelist Wei Jiafu “talking about Cosco and himself” that she kept checking her mobile phone.

That hasn’t stopped people coming to Boao, of course.

More than 75% of the 1,400 participants were business executives looking to mingle with one another, as well as senior government figures. There were also some high-profile figures from abroad. This year World Bank boss, Robert Zoellick gave a speech about China’s need for reforms, while Italian leader Mario Monti showed up to thank the Chinese for their support.

Although it’s not quite Davos yet, Boao is growing in stature. Perhaps with this in mind, local authorities have announced plans for a new airport to serve the event (most of the traffic is envisage to be private jets).

But apart from Locke’s nocturnal arrangements, this year’s Forum produced only one other controversy. That cropped up when the daughter of ex-premier Li Peng advocated a frugal and simple lifestyle as the best means to happiness. Given Li Xiaolin’s own liking for costly designer clothes, her urging prompted widespread derision. Tan Boniu, an English teacher, rushed onto weibo in response, with his own take on Lord Acton’s maxim: “Absolute power not only leads to absolute corruption, but also to absolute stupidity,” he scoffed.

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