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Davos Diary: When it Comes to Human Rights in China, It’s Don’t Ask, Won’t Tell

Why the World Economic Forum will talk about many things -- but not human rights in the world’s biggest county.

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The quickest way to end a conversation in Davos is to bring up human rights in China. I tried it roughly half a dozen times, and it always spoiled otherwise congenial encounters. Tango Matsumoto is the executive vice president of the Japanese IT giant Fujitsu Limited. Human rights in China “is something we should talk about more,” he said finally, after I asked him the same questions several times. He said he had no more official comment afterwards and walked away, refusing to shake my hand. Sun Yafang is the chairwoman of Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment. I saw her at a reception, walked up to her, and introduced myself as a journalist who used to live in China. We chatted for a few minutes – about our hometowns, about living in Beijing — and then I asked her why human rights in China is not a topic at Davos. “I don’t know,” she said. It’s perhaps not the right subject for here, she added. Then she said she had to attend a different event and politely hustled away.

Yes, a meeting of finance tycoons, heads of state, and chiefs of massive corporations is probably not the place to criticize the illiberalism of one of the world’s most powerful countries. At Davos, “human rights comes up all the time,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the NGO Human Rights Watch and a long time Davos participant, told me. But not for China, he added. That’s a shame. For a forum that claims to help participants “strengthen their situation awareness and contextual intelligence,” ignoring an important aspect of China does a disservice to those coming here to learn.

The official Davos program on China features mostly sessions on the economy, including one on how economic, environmental, and governance priorities shape China’s future, and one on “China’s impact as a global investor.” While issues surrounding China’s official corruption and attempts to foster rule of law — two problem areas in which Beijing sanctions debate – are brought up occasionally, it’s done in an extremely gentle way. (When I asked him about the lack of Chinese human rights issues on the program, Olivier Schwab, the executive director of the World Economic Forum’s Beijing office, told me, “We have a pretty good China program.”)

Questions about the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control of the media, its imprisonment of dissidents, and its unwillingness to allow the formation of political opposition groups don’t come up at all. “There’s a lot of fawning, and little, if any criticism,” Roth added.

To be fair, there’s probably no way to create a Davos that critically addresses these issues. The World Economic Form (WEF), the organization that puts on Davos, has a difficult enough time getting Chinese principals to Davos; there are just north of 100 participants from China (though the organizers point out that their “Summer Davos” in Northeast China attracts far more Chinese participants.) This relative paucity of participants from China already diminishes Davos’s utility as a place to both learn about the world from some of its top thinkers, and to profit, by connecting and building relationships with the world’s top businesspeople. Putting Chinese human rights issues on the agenda would probably mean that even fewer Chinese showed up.

It’s not just an issue for China. Davos probably couldn’t exist if its participants truly tried to hold CEOs and heads of state accountable for their actions. In a Thursday session, WEF moderator Philipp Rösler asked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi how he would continue to be an effective regional leader. If Sisi had known he’d be receiving difficult questions in a public setting, he might not have attended. And if he had received tough questions, maybe he wouldn’t have returned. WEF didn’t take that risk — and Sisi’s session didn’t allow for such questions.

WEF serves both as a convener and as a great leveler — a facilitator not only for business but for incremental positive change in the context of a smoother and more balanced global economy. But it is decidedly not a democratizing force. “I think WEF is a safe space” for repressive countries, Salil Shetty, the secretary general of the human rights NGO Amnesty International, told me.

Most other international forums that contain Chinese principals also give China a pass. “Their allergy to raising human rights questions and thereby offending China is hardly unique to them,” a long time China watcher and Davos regular, who asked to speak anonymously, told me by email. “They are only one of the many organizations abroad (not just in China) who are feel that their access depends on staying away from ‘sensitive issues.’”

And that’s fine, to a point—not every global occasion needs to be a platform for criticism. But World Economic Forum founder Klaus Scwhab’s theme for this year’s conference is “the new global context,” and many of the sessions here featured those words in their titles or descriptions.

The global elite comes to Davos not only for networking, but also to learn about the state of the world. In Davos, “people see business as devoid of human rights,” Amnesty’s Shetty said. But in China, it’s certainly not. A full picture of the situation in China – the levels of discontent in different parts of the country, the views of those dissatisfied with communist rule, the prospect of even gradual democratic reform, the potentially catastrophic environmental issues  – would make it easier for businesspeople to make smarter decisions.

-Jamila Trindle contributed reporting.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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