September 10th, 2009
04:12 PM GMT
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DALIAN, China - At one of the first conferences of the World Economic Forum’s “Summer Davos” on Thursday, a large white elephant slowly materialized in the center of the room.

The financial crisis still looms large in the minds of participants, as evidenced by sessions like the morning conference on “Management Lessons from the Great Recession.” A word that appeared time and again at that talk: Transparency.

The CEOs on stage discussed how lack of transparency in financial markets helped lead to collapse. Maurice Levy, CEO and chairman of France’s Publicis Group, said in today’s media environment “every wrongdoing will be known,” making transparency crucial. Added Ben Verwaayen, CEO of Alcatel-Lucent: “In every industry, you have to increase transparency in every aspect of business.” 

Every time “transparency” was mentioned, however, a white elephant grew from a hint of a shadow into a full-blown pachyderm in the crowded conference hall. Finally the moderator, Helmutt Schutte, gently posed a question to the panel’s sole Chinese participant: How about transparency in China?

“We have too much transparency,” said Sun Hong, chairman of the Dalian Port Company, explaining the strength of the unions and importance in shared decision-making; state-owned companies have further oversight from Communist Party secretaries. He gave a detailed response to a difficult question – and yet, to me, the elephant remained in the room.

Concerns about the transparency in China remain high, especially in light of the recent arrests of Rio Tinto employees on charges of stealing state secrets. Yet the “Summer Davos” conference itself is a testament to the importance of China on the global economic stage. As one CEO said, the recession has accelerated the rise of China.

If transparency is a key lesson from the Great Recession, and if China is key player for the world economic rebound, then what will be the outcome when these divergent forces meet? I would have asked the white elephant, but he was in a rush: Too many meetings to attend.

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