The 11th annual Boao Forum gets under way today in Hainan, China, with more than 1,500 attendees, including Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the heads of several Asian countries, the presidents of Mexico, Peru and Zambia, the IMF’s managing director, Bill Gates and former vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長).
Not bad for a conference that was dreamed up in 1997 after a game of golf in Hainan by former Australian prime minister Robert Hawke, former Japanese prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Chinese real-estate developer Jiang Xiaosong (蔣曉松).
Hawke and Hosokawa envisaged a platform for dialogue among Asian nations, while Jiang wanted to develop Hainan.
After former Philippine president Fidel Ramos was brought on board, the foundation for the forum was laid out in meetings in Manila in September 1998. After years of discussion with Chinese leaders, the Boao Forum for Asia was inaugurated in February 2001 in Hainan and the first annual conference was held the following year.
The forum is meant to be the Asian equivalent of the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Davos, Switzerland. Boao has not quite reached that level, but then the WEF has been around since 1971.
The focus for many people each year is what China’s president says in his keynote address, and this year is no different, with Xi set to address the plenary session today. However, many Taiwanese will be more interested in what is said when Xi meets Siew at some point this weekend, because the forum has also developed into a key “unofficial” channel of communication between the Chinese government and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
Siew attended his first forum in 2003 as chairman of the Cross-Straits Common Market Foundation, a non-profit organization he founded. He has used the foundation as his cover ever since, even when he went to Hainan in 2008 as vice president-elect and the Taiwanese delegation met with then-Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). This year Siew is attending as the “honorary chairman” of the foundation.
The foundation has served as a front for other Taiwanese attendees. Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) attended last year, when he was vice president-elect, as a senior advisor to the foundation and met then-Chinese vice premier (now Premier) Li Keqiang (李克強). Former foreign minister and Control Yuan president Frederick Chien (錢復) is going this year in his role as a foundation advisor.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said on Tuesday that he attaches great importance to the Taiwanese delegation’s attendance and the forum will offer the two sides of the Taiwan Strait a chance to boost exchanges and give the nation updated information on China’s latest developments.
In reality, the forum serves as an annual reminder of Beijing’s efforts to downgrade and isolate Taiwan on the international stage. Although the forum was established by 25 countries and its board is multinational, the secretariat is in Beijing and is Beijing-centric.
No serving elected Taiwanese official has ever taken part in the forum and the leader of the Taiwanese delegation often ends up seated between the chief executives of Hong Kong and Macau, as Siew was in 2008.
The forum organizers said on Thursday that Siew has been ranked second in the list of business leaders attending this year’s meeting, right after Bill Gates. Chien has been ranked third on the list, they said.
The theme of this year’s forum is “Asia Seeking Development for All: Restructuring, Responsibility and Cooperation.” However, the message that forum participants will receive is that Taiwan is not a sovereign nation, but an economic entity best represented by its businesspeople.
Ma may attach “great importance” to Taiwanese attending the forum, but China clearly does not.