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Boao Forum: Lessons for Pakistan?


By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, April 06,2012

Economy drives the world in the new world order and all the countries must focus on economic development as a panacea for their political problems as well as a tool for improving the lives of their peoples.

This is the message that resonates at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2012, Hainan Province, China. Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang Monday opened the Forum with a forceful speech, vowing to deepen China’s reforms and pursue a cooperative, all-inclusive model of national growth and regional cooperation.

Delivering his keynote speech to several hundred government, business and academic leaders from around the globe attended the meeting, themed "Asia in the Changing World: Moving toward Sound and Sustainable Development," in Boao, Li reminded participants of the grave challenges that Asia faces in the years to come i.e. food and energy security, and the need to balance growth with sustainable development. 

"Faced with profound changes in international and domestic landscapes, we must let reforms and opening-up continue to lead the way in removing the institutional obstacles that hamper the shift of the growth model," Li said. 

The Boao Forum, a China-led Asian equivalent of the prestigious World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, draws government and business leaders as well as academia in Asia and other continents to share experiences and visions on challenges arising out of development and urbanization. 

“We do not seek hegemony but want all to benefit from the fruits of sustainable development,” declared Li, while proudly flagging the big strides China has made to become the 2nd largest economy. Li, set to become the prime minister later this year, also reaffirmed the commitment to goals of national people-friendly development and regional cooperation based on what he underscored mutual trust and consultation. 

Besides Li, Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani was among the three prime ministers who had been invited to speak to the inaugural session. In his eight minute address, the prime minister enumerated his government’s achievements since early 2008, saying the economy was fragile and reeling under the shock of higher oil prices.

Besides attempting to project democracy at home, Gilani underlined that his government was pursuing a new growth strategy that centred on preservation of economic stability, incentives for private investments, and several initiatives for deepening relations with countries such as China. Trade and tariff liberalization with China, transit trade agreement with Afghanistan, and the sanction of the most favoured nation status (MFN) for India were also part of the new strategy. 

The premier also flagged Pakistan’s independent judiciary and a free media, including “80 tv channels” as big steps forward in the country’s democratic transition. This message about the fruits of democracy may have gone down well with his Italian counterpart Mario Monti and several business executives, but probably not with his hosts as well as the Kazakh premier Karim Massimov. Both countries are absorbingly focused on economic progress, expansion and consolidation, but politically are still in the clutches of single-party rule, perpetuated by an oppressive legal-administrative regime that is authoritarian in nature if judged against western ideals. 

Although the Chinese vice premier reiterated his country’s dedication “to creating an open, transparent, fair, competitive and predictable marketplace and legal environment," and a call for end to protectionist policies, many business executives and economists take exception to such commitments, saying transparency and subsidies remain a big question mark in a country that is gradually displaying concerns about the growing food and energy needs beside the staring fall-out of rapid urbanization.

It is a country that is striving to improve livelihoods, remove or at least minimize the disparity between urban and rural regions, struggling to ensure quality social housing and trying to regulate income distribution.

That is why the politbureau of Communist Party of China remains the pivot of power and still considered a guarantee against large-scale socio-political upheaval as western concepts of economic and political freedoms follow economic affluence.

But despite the deficit in democratic practices, China’s astounding growth continues to attract foreign investment in billions, its reserves hovering above a whopping four billion dollars. It was against this backdrop that the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, delivered a passionate appeal to China.

“Will Chinese companies and government entities make more financial and industrial investments in Italy? I flew to Asia with this objective, to present my ideas and also urge Chinese investments in Italy and elsewhere in Europe to help ease Euro-Zones’s financial crisis,” he said.

The Boao Forum, held every year at this scenic town in South China's island province of Hainan, not only showcases the breath-taking growth in China, but also epitomizes this mammoth country’s desire to take lead in the new global economic order while allaying fears that China may seeks geo-strategic hegemony.

The Hainan province is a largely rural, farming region with little significant industry. Because of its natural beauty and absorbing coastline, the authorities are trying hard to turn it into a tourist attraction. The Hainan Airline counts among the best, and the only 5-Star Chinese carrier.

Much of the discourse that has taken place at successive Boao Forums so far, particularly the Chinese presentations, bear a telling lesson for Pakistan -- put politically contentious issues at the back-burner and fix the economy. Therein lies the real sovereignty.

Chinese leaders conveyed this message to Premier Gilani in the latest round of bilateral meetings too. Vice Premier Li advised again that we should focus on economy to ride out of our current socio-economic crisis, Gilani told the Tribune before leaving for Islamabad. “We will pursue the Chinese advice very seriously as part of our “Look East Policy”, he said. To what extent does this translate into relieving the people of crippling inflation, crushing load-shedding and heel-burning misgovernance, is an altogether different matter.

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk