At Berlin's European School of Business and Technologies (ESMT), experts differ on how to confront a world economy with shifting powers. DW's Lars Halter takes a closer look at whether there's any common ground at all.
There's an ideological divide between politics and business. It came to the fore in the very theme of the ESMT's annual forum: Global change, read the stage backdrop, would bring "new challenges" and "new opportunities."
All corporate speakers at the gathering preferred to talk about the chances involved, and only NATO strategist Stefanie Babst clearly warned of the new risks.
Of all recent global changes, the new roles of Russia and China are the main focus for NATO: There's Russia's campaign to shift powers in a world "it views as a zero-sum-game," and its perceived meddling in other countries' domestic affairs.
And then there's China with its Strategy 2050, which does not only entail the country's business expansion via its world-spanning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but also includes record defense spending. China, says Babst, is working toward having the world's most advanced army by the mid of the century, and "it's reason behind this is not to make the world a better place."
China's potential to wage war via drones or source code is clearly on NATO's mind, whereas others prefer to look on the bright side of things.
Former Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche looks on the bright sides of current changes in global politics and business, seeing rising opportunities , especially for the German carmaker
Dieter Zetsche, just days removed from his time as head of German carmaker Daimler, sees China more as a partner. No surprise there, as the automaker sells one out of three cars in the Asian nation and runs some of its largest plants under the Beijing Benz moniker.
Zetsche's look at China is optimistic as the market is driven by technology. The average buyer of a Mercedes car there is 37 years old, the former CEO says, compared to 57 in the company's home market, Germany. As carmakers venture further into autonomous driving, artificial intelligence and revolutionary mobility concepts, China seems to be the shiny beacon on the hill. But even Dieter Kempf, president of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), can't unequivocally support Zetsche's thesis.
"We have to let go of our post-Davos optimism," Kempf told DW, referring to Xi Jinping's speech at the World Economic Forum in early 2017, when the Chinese president promised leaders from all over the world that his country would open up and develop into a free economy.
Since then, China has continued to invest globally and strengthened trade. But it does not yet treat international partners the way they had been hoping for. The utter lack of reciprocity is at the top of complaints for businesses everywhere: While China enjoys complete access to other markets, foreign investors do not enjoy that privilege in China.
Who can you trust?
And there are trust issues, especially with regards to Beijing's use of data. Kempf tells a story of a hotel receptionist he talked to at a recent stay in Shenzhen. What was she thinking of the surveillance cameras all over town and Beijing's potential to watch her every move? The young lady smiled, says Kempf. She even knew the German word for data security — datenschutz — and mused that she was more concerned about her personal security. Ever since the cameras were up, crime was practically nonexistent and she had no worries walking home after work.
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Others point to Beijing's abuse of data. It has led to the government's infamous social credit system. The national surveillance system is sold to the Chinese as a first step towards improving citizens' access to government services. But it literally spies on people, tracking their whereabouts, and enables Beijing to punish those the party disapproves of.
Such data abuse, and the ethics behind it, have businesses on the edge. Data encryption only protects against government interference for as long as the code isn't broken.
However, Kempf, speaking for German industry, remains optimistic that some headway will be made. He refers to a Chinese proverb: The sky is high, and the emperor far, he says, and that it would take some time to get Beijing to change its ways and align itself closer with Western business values.
In fact, replace the emperor with a "czar" and you get to the real origin of Kempf's quote: it's actually from Russia, and that brings into play the other country moving toward great global change and posing a threat to the world Western companies have acted in for decades.
And yet, optimism is high on this day at the European School of Business and Technology. But real solutions are hard to find between the many applause lines.