World Economic Forum

Thirty years ago the Davos symposium was a place for business affairs, extramarital affairs, and the occasional diplomatic incident. Stephen Hugh-Jones shocked a Chinese delegation into near-departure ...


It was a Chinese diplomat who taught me the meaning of face: preserving it, on his side; on mine, keeping it straight. This was in 1978, if my memory serves, when last I attended the Davos Symposium. These gatherings of what is now the World Economic Forum were more fun in those days, I suspect. And maybe more useful.

Klaus Schwab's brainchild in the 1970s called itself modestly the European Management Forum. Those networking in the Swiss ski resort included a few business leaders, but mostly their underlings. Politicians were few, and, at highest, likelier to include a former British prime minister€”Edward Heath was there, wooden as ever, one year that I was€”than ex-presidents of the United States, like Bill Clinton in 2005.

The networking too was down-to-earth, unpublicised, and, I'd guess, productive, unlike today's photo-ops for world statesmen to agree on some grand initiative (remember those pledges to Africa three years ago?) which they will then forget. The symposium-goers shared one simple, achievable aim, to increase their profits. And, whether in plenary sessions or, more likely, smoke-filled rooms afterwards, I guess they achieved it, or quite soon "Davos" would have fallen apart.

But not everything can have changed. Then as now, most of those at Davos were men: well-off, well-tailored, well-kempt and well into or past middle age. With them came a small caravan of wives of a certain age, trophy wives rather younger, and sundry "research executives", "personal assistants" and the like, of the same sex but younger still. And we journalists, some eager for stories€”there weren't many€”some, as I was, for ideas, of which I found plenty: it's one thing to read what preoccupies the captains of industry, another to hear it from the horses' mouths.

The mixture could be piquant. Among the journos in 1978 was a young woman who had worked with me on Vision, the Paris-based multilingual monthly that I had quit in 1974 for The Economist. As old colleagues will, we were reminiscing one day until I realised to my alarm that the afternoon "workshop" whose rapporteur I was due to aid had already begun. By chance, she also planned to attend it. We went, late, into the full meeting-room together.

She was a comely young woman, exceptionally so. I still recall the sight of fifty middle-aged jaws dropping simultaneously. The looks of envy darted at me, when anyone could take his eyes off her, were, alas, unjustified. But it was a happy reminder that money is not the first interest of even the busiest businessmen.

The skiing too was fun (I recommend langlauf: the cold white stuff seldom slopes at more than one in a hundred; no one but Nordics will expect you to travel faster than five miles an hour; and when you do fall even so, console yourself that the man in front who also just did so may earn more in a week than you in a year but still looks just as absurd on his side in a snowdrift).

There was leisure too: at a five-day gathering, even the grandees had time to let down their hair. And there were no cell-phones. Nor, which also must have changed greatly for the worse, any intense security, albeit the anti-capitalist Red Brigades and the Baader Meinhof gang were active at the time. Even the plenary sessions, ever less crowded as the symposium wore on, had their light moments. I recollect Lord Whatsisname (yes, memory really has failed me there), Britain's official promoter of exports, speaking of Finland as behind the Iron Curtain. The Finns present were not amused.

Karen Eliot/Flickr

More than this, there were genuine business ideas, though some must sound quaint today: what on earth was the "worker participation" that worried the Davosards of the mid-1970s? And so back to my Chinese diplomat. This was the first year a Chinese delegation had turned up, after plenty of Schwabian diplomacy, I imagine. With Mao Tsetung not long in his grave, they were after a very big idea indeed: what on earth was "the market"?

I spent an evening with them, conversing, more or less, in my and their still more dubious French. Sheer naughtiness, I confess, provoked me to suggest to them that in 50 years' time their heirs would recognise Mao's Kuomintang opponent, Chiang Kai-shek, whatever his faults, as a true patriot. A shocked pause developed into a long bilateral discussion on the equality of women with a charming technologist€”of just what I never learned€”who assured me firmly that most European men were like most Chinese ones on that topic.

Then I goofed. I remarked to the head of the delegation, from their Paris embassy, I guessed, that the more spying the better: if Britain had lots of spies in China, and it had plenty in Britain, we'd both know what the other was up to, and so lessen the risk of an accidental incident that might escalate beyond control.

Suddenly, imperial China, the China that once told George III's envoy that it needed none of Europe's useless inventions, was reborn. Icily, the diplomat told me it was inconceivable, nay, gravely insulting, to suppose that China could even think of posting spies in Britain. In vain did I suggest to him that Britain certainly spied on his country, was it not just imaginable that China's intelligence services€”no kin to diplomats, naturally€”did so in ours? But that, of course, I intended no offence to the glorious People's Republic.

In vain indeed. Say what I might, the higher he got on his Tang horse, making it plain that uncouth Britons might indeed behave so grubbily but that civilised Chinese did not. I could almost hear him racially repaying, in kind, the Westerners who sneered at Johnny Chinaman 80 years before. Next morning Schwab's team told me the Chinese were threatening to pull out unless they got an apology in writing.

Since I thought it indeed desirable that post-Mao China rediscover the market, and since, more potently, I was the symposium's guest, I readily complied. In my floweriest French, I wrote assuring Monsieur le whatever his post was that of course it was inconceivable that etc etc, that I entirely withdrew any such absurd idea, and if I had unwittingly implied even the faintest stain etc etc I deeply regretted it, etc etc etc. And did my best not to fall about laughing.

We both knew I was lying: the man was playing the fool, but he surely wasn't one. But my face was straight, his was duly saved, the Chinese stayed on, I wrote an epigram on the inequality of men in my most flattering French for Mme la charming technologue, and returned later to London deeply grateful that it lay 5,000 miles from Beijing and that I lived in that brief window of history where the obvious natural superiority of the Chinese might, just conceivably, not be true.