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Memo From Davos: Elites Within Elites

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Davos is supposed to be the gathering ground for the global elite. I was reminded the first day, when I went to register for the forum. I entered a tent and submitted my passport to an elderly Swiss woman at the front desk and she could not find my name among the group of registered participants. Then she checked further and said I was a "media leader." I immediately said no, I'm not a leader. She insisted, however, noting that I went to the wrong tent; she is supposed to register representatives of the media, and media leaders are supposed to go to a different tent. I wanted to explain that my own father was a journalist, some of my best friends are journalists, I learn as much from talking to them as they learn from me, it's not a question of leading anybody, but I could tell she was getting impatient. So I went to the bigger tent next door to register as a "leader." I soon found out, however, that not all leaders are equal.

The "Summer Davos" is held in China every year, and it alternates between Dalian and Tianjin. I had been to the Dalian forum on a couple of occasions and it is indeed a smoothly run operation. All participants are flown in business class, and we are whisked from our five-star hotels to the conference site along wide boulevards with lanes blocked off just for the forum participants. In Beijing, I'd be upset at traffic jams caused by lanes blocked off for high-level government officials, but I confess it felt good to be on the other end of the hierarchical system. Of course I realized the whole thing was artificial and that the Cinderella-like ball would end at midnight (in my case), but I never did get a sense that I was a less-than-equal member of the "global elite" during the ball itself.

In Davos, it's a different story. Most academics stay in a three-star hotel. The most telltale sign that we are not so important is that there is no security at the door. Political leaders and CEOs stay at five-star hotels with security guards outside, and an airport like scanner at the entrance. Those without electronic World Economic Forum badges are refused entrance. I once forgot my badge and was refused entry for a dinner talk I had signed up for at one of the hotels. I tried to talk my way in, but the burly policeman waved me off and told his mate, in French, that I was annoying him. I switched to French and he seemed to lighten up a bit. Finally, he let me phone a WEF staff member who sorted out the problem.

Davos is a bigger deal, with more state leaders and CEOs than "regional" WEF meetings. The initial invitation letter noted that the forum includes political leaders from "G20 and other important countries." I felt bad for the not-so-important countries. Which ones did they have in mind, I wonder? Azerbaijian, perhaps? Turns out that my guess was wrong. My hotel room included gifts from Azerbaijian, which meant that they must have a delegation here.

The town itself is crawling with security forces. There are over 40 state leaders and they obviously need to be protected. But some countries seem to perfect the gangster look, with state leaders surrounded by seven-foot tall bodyguards with dark sunglasses (worn indoors), and one guesses it must be countries like Azerbaijian. After one session in an exclusive hotel, I was about to step into an elevator when a huge guy blocked my way. He told me, in broken English, it's the president, make way for him. I did not argue.

Davos is perhaps the only global forum where state leaders are not keynote speakers. This time, only Angela Merkel delivered a keynote address. Other leaders are put in rooms that vary in size, depending on perceptions of the country's power. The leader of Singapore was put in a small room for a half hour interview with Fareed Zakaria. The leader of Mexico was put in a huge room that was filled to capacity, but I guessed that the real draw was Bill Gates, who interviewed the president.

My guess proved to be correct, because the Mexican leader was followed by the Canadian Prime Minister, and the room emptied. The Canadian leader is a right-wing conservative and I'm not supposed to like him, but my nationalist feelings kicked in. I really felt horrible, and his uninspired speech did not lift my spirits. The next day, the (Toronto-based) Globe and Mail reported on his speech with the headline "Prime Minister Harper unveils grand plan to reshape Canada" and I was reminded of the infamous award-winning entry for the most boring headline contest, "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative." The article itself didn't mention the sparse crowd.

Still, at least I could take comfort from the fact that other countries seemed to be even lower down in the global pecking order. The president of Azerbaijian was put on a panel with three other not-so-important countries. I didn't go to that panel.

Of course, such feelings of superiority are not justified from a moral point of view, and last night Azerbaijian took its revenge. I dreamt I was lost in a tall building in Davos, and I had forgotten my WEF badge. A mammoth of a man from Azerbaijian blocked my way. I tried to explain I was a participant at Davos, but he ignored my pleas. He brought me to the edge of the building and was about to throw me over. I woke up, bathed in sweat.

Addendum: I've now arrived back in Beijing, so let me end with one thought on the subject of "Davosian" morality. Obviously many CEOs come to Davos to make deals and state leaders come to score political points (the Canadian PM peppered his speech with French, obviously his real audience was not in Davos). But what gives (moral) value to the whole thing is that there is a sincere effort to encourage political and business leaders to consider the social implications of their work. As the official slogan puts it, the WEF is "commited to improving the state of the world." The WEF also selects "Young Global Leaders" (under 40) and "Global Shapers" (under 30), usually successful entrepreneurs from around the world, and brings them to meetings where they interact with "social entrepreneurs" and learn about key moral issues facing the planet. It's easy to be cynical, but it's hard to think of a better way of improving the social conscience of the "global elite."

The random encounters can be just as telling as the formal arrangements. A couple of nights ago, I took a designated WEF van back to my hotel. At the next stop, we picked up a Nobel-prize winning economist well-known for his progressive outlook. In stepped another man with a South Asian accent. Ah, this time it's a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He was in a great rush to talk to the current head of the G20 at one of the fancy hotels. He had a proposal to expand the G20 to make it into a G25, with representation from the five poorest countries from five different continents. The aim, he explained, is to give greater voice to the poor in global fora and to sensitize the leaders of the wealthiest countries to the needs and interests of people in the poorest countries. We wished him luck. I do not know if he will succeed, but Davos can get the ball rolling.