Day One at Summer Davos: It’s all about the Soft Power

“Summer Davos” is the World Economic Forum’s four-year old conference in China, titled “The Annual Meeting of the New Champions.” It’s all about the economic challenges and opportunities emerging markets. Wandering between panels where heads of multinationals, entrepreneurs, government officials and social entrepreneurs are talking about the Chinese consumer that’s just waking up, trillions in foreign investment and where it’s going and the time-bomb of shortages in food, water and energy as the world population goes from 6.9 billion to 9.1 billion in 2050, two things occurred to me: This is my version of porn, and I’m a total nerd.

By far the most interesting topic on day one was a panel on so-called “soft power.” Soft power is the name of the game in China—both good and bad, and it’s been on full display so far in Tianjin. Soft power is getting what you want through attraction not coercion. Over the course of the panel we got a few different views about the soft power of America, Japan and of course China.

Chatham House Rules dictate that I can’t cite what individuals said, only the ideas. So let’s say “Guy A,” who was Japanese, talked about the cultural spread of things like sushi, kung fu and chopsticks that don’t individually do much, but collectively, he argued, bring East and West into greater cultural common ground. It’s the reverse flow of America’s Hollywood/McDonald’s force of soft power that has made so many people around the emerging world crave the Western lifestyle. Guy B, who was Chinese, argued that China needed to do a better job of using soft power because it is largely misunderstood in the world. He suggested the importance of an international reputable China-based media service like the BBC, Reuters or CNN.

By in my opinion a third panelist, an American, came the closest to getting the potential for Asian soft power right. He said that China’s soft power is its extraordinary example of economic ascendancy. The developed world used to assume that the trend in modernity and global domination was towards openness and in the last decade, China had fundamentally shaken that belief. It’s certainly not a model of development with which everyone agrees, but there is no denying that at least in the medium term it has been hugely successful. “It’s a new way to get things done,” this guy said.

This issue of China’s ability to “get things done” has been a recurring theme over the first day and a half of the conference. Because of the stigma of being too pro-China in the West, people are loathe to say it too publicly, but a lot of Western business people are jealous of China’s ability to get stuff done while our leadership squabbles over healthcare, plays partisan games, lives in a perpetual election cycle and wastes time posturing over Mosques-that-aren’t-actually-Mosques near Ground-Zero and appeals to wackos not to burn Korans. Ever-mustachio-d New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, dressed somewhat like a mafia boss in a tan suit and black crewneck, held court during today’s opening session and summed up a lot of the domestic concerns when he called leadership in Washington “brain dead” – doing a flat-lining sound and saying there’s not even a tiny blip of life.

Meanwhile, the entire event is being held in a elaborate, modern conventional hall in Tianjin—not exactly the sexiest of Chinese cities, and one I’ve heard called “Tianjersey.” But give the city credit for getting things done: This conference hall didn’t exist nine months ago and a fleet of shuttles and a smiling young staff has been swarming around attendees at every moment. An elected official from one of the largest Western cities said it couldn’t build a parking lot in that time.

There are little imperfections of course, but China is an iterator that throws money at the problem and figures it out later, not too unlike the Web 2.0 ethos. James Rogers of Duke Energy Corp. held a session I missed yesterday but according to hallway chatter, he emphasized that when it came to big projects like energy things aren’t innovated in a garage– they are innovated through trial and error and China is throwing a lot more money at that than the US is.

If China’s decisive, economic heft is it’s emerging soft power, what of Japan? Remember Japan? The last century’s big Asian economic threat? Poor Japan. It seems an afterthought to almost every panel at the New Champions summit. And yet in Silicon Valley there is a full-on cult surrounding Japan, at the highest reaches of power from Steve Jobs to Larry Ellison to Marc Benioff to excitable super angel Dave McClure. This despite the fact that on the surface Japan shares few common values with the Valley: It’s one of the most closed societies in the world, its business sphere is incredibly hierarchical and homogeneous and in terms of gadget innovation it tends to over-feature and over-design products that only an elite will pay up to own.

So why the Japan love? The lingering soft power of its culture of design, efficiency, order, and beauty-in-simplicity pioneered over the last few decades. The cultures are certainly different, but as China takes over as the Asian economic threat, so too will it take over as the dominant soft power influence of the region? It’d be a huge uphill battle given Western concerns about China’s political system, but as America continues to mire in lack of decisiveness it’s possible. And it’s probably a safer bet to the world embracing China than chopsticks or an International media service.