Chinese leader meets Davos elite as voters revolt

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China's president will preach the advent of a new world order in Davos next week before the high priests of globalisation, who are facing an uprising from voters against their orthodoxy of open markets and borders.

The annual conclave of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps, grouping 3,000 delegates from the worlds of government, business, science and the arts, has created the caricature of "Davos Man", a rich, rootless globetrotter who worships with fellow disciples in the church of free trade.

But populists are singing from a radically different hymn sheet. Their hostility towards both unfettered trade and immigration has already yielded Britain's vote to leave the European Union and the rise of once-fringe parties across Europe, including in France and Germany.

The ultimate rebuke to "Davos Man" will come on Friday, the last day of the week-long forum, when Donald Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States.

And the consensus of a rules-based global order led by Washington is threatened by communist China's inexorable rise.

In that context, it is noteworthy that Xi Jinping will become the first Chinese president to attend the forum when he gives a keynote speech on Tuesday that is expected to extol Beijing's efforts to negotiate new types of regional trade deals shorn of US influence.

This year's Davos "may be the start of China's new role as a leader in promoting globalisation and a speedy recovery of the global economy", as Western countries turn to "isolationist self-centredness", commentator Sun Ding wrote for China's official Xinhua news service.

IHS Markit chief economist Nariman Behravesh stressed China is in no position yet to replace the United States as a global hegemon, but told AFP: "In Davos, Xi will likely articulate China's vision for the world economic and political order."

- Don't blame us -

Heading into the World Economic Forum's 47th edition, organisers reject the charge of complacency. Founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, 78, told AFP that the discussions will aim to address "the root causes" of the widespread anxiety felt among Western voters.

But he insists that globalised trade alone is not to blame for the rise of identity politics, pointing to advances in technology that have rendered millions of workers' jobs obsolete along with fraying social bonds for the "emotional turmoil" afflicting so many.

The answer, Schwab said, lies not in retreating behind isolationist walls but in properly educating and training people to face up to what he calls the "Fourth Industrial Revolution".

One theme of Davos this year is how white-collar workers could be next in the firing line, after their factory brethren, given the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence.

If Xi is the star turn, Chinese business leaders will also be out in force in Davos. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry will be on hand from the outgoing US administration, along with new UN chief Antonio Guterres and ministers representing 70 countries.

Oscar-winning actors Matt Damon and Forest Whitaker will be present to promote development initiatives they are leading in poorer nations.

- Beware false prophets -

But in the short term, Friday's inauguration of Trump will be the elephant in the Alps as Davos debates where the property tycoon -- newly buffeted by incendiary allegations linked to Russia -- intends to take his country.

If he is indeed bent on isolationism, "China is going to be there to try to fill the void", commented Luis Garicano, professor of economics and strategy at the London School of Economics.

But he also pointed to the fact that in some of his cabinet picks, such as secretary of state and defence, Trump is surrounded by strong figures with top-level backgrounds in business or the military who are used to working across borders.

"These people are pretty committed to the world order, one could say the Davos order. He would seem to stand alone in his rejection of 'Davos Man'."

The new US administration will be represented in Davos by Anthony Scaramucci, a flamboyant hedge-fund investor who is part of Trump's transition team.

Scaramucci will be the object of wary curiosity from many in the Davos crowd. They no doubt share the view of Trump espoused by former Mexican president Vicente Fox that the Republican is a "false prophet" who bodes ill for the world, elites and poor alike.

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