A common language
In the last 12 years since the founding of the Boao Forum for Asia, immense economic forces have changed the world, with forces of productivity and growth shifting from developed to developing countries. This is now seen as a historic transition. And yet, many of the profound structural issues still remain, despite the impact of the economic crisis since 2008. Americans still spend more on credit; Chinese still prefer to save. Creditor and debtor nations are as they were at the start of this process. Austerity policies have failed to cut deeply into public spending in Europe and elsewhere. Internationally, foreign direct investment is still dominated by the United States and the EU. Inequality has either remained the same over the last decade, or in some places dramatically deteriorated.
Global leaders—at events like Boao, the Group of 20 or the World Economic Forum in Davos—are wrestling to create a common language of development, as well as a common understanding of the policies that might best achieve this. A shared vision starts off with very general ideas, but soon gets down to issues like per-capita GDP, access to water, food and energy. The policies, however, cause the most contention. For some, the role of the state has to be very strong, while for others, things need to be left to the market. These debates are reflected within China, where since 1978 there has been much discussion over where the boundary of the former needs to end and the latter to start. Then there are passionate discussions of what the market is, of what the best structure of the state is, of what the role of multinational organizations and companies might be, and of the impact of global movements in civil society.
One message stood out most clearly this year in Boao: Pragmatic, evidence-based policy is likely to lead to the best outcomes. The period of policies driven by ideology is over. The search for analytic methods and approaches to understanding the immensely complex amount of data available is a common one across cultures and territories. So any place where this exploration can continue is welcome. The World Economic Forum has been regarded as a Western-centric forum, wherein discussion has been weighted toward the priorities and interests of the developed world. So the perspective of countries with their very different economic and development models in the Asian region is important to hear.
One issue that Boao might need to address, however, is that there is now the need for a more generic intellectual output. The World Economic Forum produces reports that promote its often neo-liberal perspectives. Boao is less appreciated for this. It has produced some reports, but they are not associated with a specific intellectual standpoint or position. Asia as a term puzzles many, because it lacks cohesiveness. Boao might well be a place where this issue of what an Asian perspective on global development—something that is shared across the different economies and social and political models in the region—might be.
It's clear that many of those who participated in this year's forum remain profoundly skeptical about the models available for development in the rest of the world, with all the problems they raise about sustainability, equality and equity. By bringing people together, Boao makes the first step in trying to create consensus about what the alternative to Western capitalism might be. But to finally explore this, something more sustained is necessary. A Boao standpoint articulated through a major report would be a good way to start this.
Kerry Brown is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney. He was previously head of the Asia Program at Chatham House in London. He leads the EU-funded Europe China Research and Advice Network.
Brown was educated at the universities of Cambridge, London and Leeds with a PhD at Leeds in modern Chinese language and politics. He worked in the China Section of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and then served as first secretary at the British Embassy in Beijing from 2000 to 2003.
Brown participated in this year's Boao Forum for Asia.
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