When President Obama greets Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands estate in California today, another, arguably more important meeting will be taking place across the Pacific Ocean, in the central Chinese city of Chengdu.The Fortune Global Forum, an invitation-only conference of Fortune 500 CEOs, Chinese elites, and fashionable journalists, began on June 6 at the Shangri-La luxury hotel along the Jin River. The forum concludes on June 8. If there is an event that better explains the feeling of estrangement and frustration and cynicism ordinary Americans feel toward the men and women who govern and manage them, I can’t think of it.
The “partners” or sponsors of the forum include some of the largest and most famous corporations and brand names in the world: Air China, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Lenovo, Volvo, McKinsey, J.P. Morgan, APCO Worldwide, and the George Washington University, among others. The CEOs and top executives of Burberry, AOL, McKinsey, Time Warner, Sina.com, Honeywell, J.P. Morgan, SINOPEC, ConocoPhillips, Morgan Stanley, Johnson and Johnson, GE, Walt Disney Company, Dreamworks Animation, Novartis, Intel, Baidu, Qualcomm, Evercore, Starwood Hotels, and Royal Phillips Electronics will be there, as will dozens of top Chinese officials and businesspeople whose relationship to the Communist Party must play a not-unimportant role in their lives. Business journalists from Fortune and Time and Reuters will be there. The usual suspects of the global convergence circuit will be there: Jon Huntsman, Hank Paulson, Kevin Rudd, Joshua Cooper Ramo, Ken Lieberthal, Carlos Gutierrez, Christopher Dodd. Yao Ming will be there. So will Yu Wenxia, Miss World 2012, who may be doing more for Sino-American relations than the rest of the list combined.
The conference schedule is a snooze, unless your hobbies include reading up on Chinese energy independence. But summits are not really defined by their breakout sessions and self-serious panels. They are defined by the forging of what the Chinese call guanxi: connections, networks, relationships, bands of influence and power. I doubt, for example, that DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who helps bankroll the U.S. Democratic Party, is overly interested in Håkan Samuelsson, the CEO of Volvo, droning on at a roundtable discussion on the future of transportation. But Katzenberg probably is very interested indeed in meeting Zhang Gaoli, vice premier of the People’s Republic and a member of its collective dictatorship, the Politburo, who opened the proceedings with a speech pledging economic liberalization. Zhang can help Katzenberg grease his way into the Chinese box-office, and hire Chinese animators at bargain wages. “I believe in the leadership here,” Katzenberg said in Beijing Thursday. Of course he does. They’ve made him filthy, stinking rich.
Money is a universal language that levels barriers of partisanship and ethnicity, a language that makes the avoidance of inconvenient facts so much easier. The wealth that the participants in the Fortune Global Forum have amassed, or are hoping to amass, from working with the Chinese one-party state anesthetizes them from concerns about food safety, orintellectual property theft, or industrial espionage, or cyber-war, or regional bullying. The fact that China uses American dollars to build its military capacity and maintain the brutal and unpredictable Kim regime in North Korea must seem inconsequential from inside the personal sauna in the Shangri-La’s presidential suite. Repression of political dissidents and religious persecution are minor affairs when your attention is fixed on a serving of thinly sliced pork belly and vegetable roll served with garlic sauce.