China's rising clout is one of the dominating themes of the five-day World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. China is the world's fourth biggest economy, and it reported double-digit growth last year. China's role is sparking a mixed reaction among the 2,300 participants at the Swiss meeting.
Experts say that China's economy accounted for less than five percent of global gross domestic product last year. But it also contributed to as much as 20 percent of world GDP growth in 2005. It has a record trade surplus with the United States. China and India combined have added hundreds of millions of low-salaried workers to the global labor market. The bottom line, experts say: It's impossible to ignore China.
Orit Gadiesh, chairman of the U.S. firm Bain and Company, says Western business leaders need to adopt a long-term, strategic way of thinking if they are to compete effectively with Chinese companies.
"The Chinese culture has a very long-term way of thinking about things," he said. "And the way I like to think about what's going on in China is it's both a startup and a turnaround. It's a startup because of all this energy and entrepreneurism that you're seeing there. It's a turnaround because it's a culture of 3,000 years and the values of this culture are still there. And so you're seeing a reinvigoration of the culture. But it's not to westernize, it's to modernize."
Nor does China want to rest on its economic laurels. Wednesday evening, Chinese Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan sketched out ambitious goals for China over the next five years, including doubling per-capita income in his country by 2010.
"Over the next five years, we will lift technological standards through independent innovation, strengthen agriculture, speed up the growth of the services industry and press ahead with optimizing and upgrading the industrial infrastructure," he said.
Zeng also said China is committed to boosting agricultural production and improving the rural economy, while also respecting the environment, and conserving and diversifying its energy use to include renewables like wind and solar power.
Ambitious goals. All the more so, critics say, since China has a poor track record on issues like energy consumption and the environment. The country has suffered four toxic spills in just three months, including two reported this January. China's growing demand for oil is sparking international concern and partly accounts for rising oil prices.
The decision by the U.S. Internet company Google to censor its Chinese Web site has also sparked controversy. But Stephen Roach, Chief Economist at the U.S. firm Morgan Stanley, says in some ways Google was merely adapting to the local rules of the road.
"It's reflective of a clear trend that most countries have in place today: And that is for non-local entities to operate in a domestic market, they have to tailor make and customize their operating procedures to local conditions," he said.
Still, Roach agrees that Google is a more sensitive issue, since it involves censoring information.
But information watchdog groups, like Reporters Without Borders, say tolerating information censorship in China is unacceptable. Julian Pain is head of the Internet freedom desk at the Paris-based group.
"Business leaders are always giving us the same answer - which is that we have to uphold local legislation," she said. "Which is, in a way, fair enough. But the problem is: What do you do when this local legislation goes against the universal declaration of human rights? When it goes against your ethical principles? And that's the case here."
The Davos forum ends Sunday. And it is certain that China will continue to dominate its many meetings.