Davos: 5 key themes this year
DAVOS, SWITZERLAND: The global elite wraps up its talkathon in the Swiss ski resort of Davos on Friday — around the same time as Donald Trump enters the White House on a wave of anti-elitist anger.
Here are five key themes from this year’s World Economic Forum, which gathers movers and shakers from business, politics, academia and showbiz every year for a week of earnest debate and extravagant partying.
China: globalisation’s new saviour?
China’s President Xi Jinping emerged as an unlikely capitalist hero as Davos kicked off on Tuesday, with a staunch defence of globalisation that stood in stark contrast to the protectionist Trump.
The first Chinese supremo to address Davos, Xi said there was “no point in blaming economic globalisation for the world’s problems” at a time when anger over the downsides of open borders has triggered political revolts in the US, Britain and beyond.
The message won glowing praise from Davos delegates — though the irony of the communist leader’s new status as a capitalist darling was not lost on observers, and China hands noted that his mantra of openness clashed with his government’s repressive actions at home.
China’s growing thirst for foreign acquisitions was also on display in Davos. The country’s richest man Wang Jianling and internet billionaire Jack Ma both expressed an interest in further investments in Hollywood and elsewhere.
Tackling the populist revolt
After a year in which US and British electorates lashed out at out-of-touch elites, the cream of that elite did plenty of head-scratching over the reasons for the revolt and what can be done about it.
The official theme of this year’s meeting was “responsive and responsible leadership”, with the growing rural-urban divide in Western countries up for discussion along with how to appease the “squeezed and angry” middle class.
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“It’s a mistake not to recognise that the middle class in my country and in others is concerned that the government is not fighting for it,” said ex-US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers.
Getting down to business on Brexit
British Prime Minister Theresa May headlined Thursday, with business leaders flocking to hear further details of her Brexit plan.
May pronounced Britain “open for business” despite her announcement that she plans to exit the EU single market, promising a mass of ambitious trade deals with partners around the world.
Anxious executives in Davos said they were relieved to have a little more clarity on how Brexit might affect business — but they said the devil will be in the details of the divorce negotiations.
Robots are coming for your jobs
Others spent the week laying preparations for the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” — technological advances such as artificial intelligence that are predicted to change our lives hugely in the decades to come, notably the way we work.
After industrial robots put paid to many manufacturing jobs in the West, experts now predict the loss of millions of white-collar jobs that machines will be able to perform — and are urging governments to wake up to the challenge.
“There’s insidious insertion of automation in a lot of different domains,” said Missy Cummings, a robotics expert at Duke University, naming driverless cars as just one technology that will revolutionise our lives.
“The reality is we can’t just keep our head in the sand like an ostrich.”
Inequality: on the agenda, and on display
The jamboree of the rich and powerful kicked off with a report by Oxfam that said eight men — including Microsoft founder and Davos attendee Bill Gates — own the same wealth as half of the world’s population put together.
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“Equality is on everyone’s lips here in Davos, and maybe actually equality is becoming the new black,” remarked Swedish Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson.
But the growing gap between the world’s rich and poor was also very much on show in Davos — where billionaires, politicians and A-listers party late into the night at invitation-only events, often after arriving by helicopter.