The former New York mayor and his company Bloomberg LP are heavily invested in China and in the idea of accommodating the Chinese government – even if that means turning a blind eye to its realities. Bloomberg’s closeness to the Chinese leadership is surely an asset for his business, but it reveals a huge weakness in his bid to be president of the United States.
Bloomberg laid bare his blinkered view of how the Chinese leadership operates in a September interview with PBS’s Firing Line: “The Communist Party wants to stay in power in China and they listen to the public,” Bloomberg said. “Xi Jinping is not a dictator. He has to satisfy his constituents or he’s not going to survive.”
Bloomberg was arguing Beijing is committed to green environmental stewardship. The billionaire’s charitable foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has worked for years to help finance Chinese green energy initiatives in cooperation with the Chinese government. Overall, China’s environmental policies are terrible, but they have made some progress on urban pollution.
But when challenged by host Margaret Hoover on whether he really believes Xi is “responsive” to the democratic will of his people, Bloomberg doubled down.
“The Chinese Communist Party looks at Russia and they look for where the Communist Party is and they don’t find it anymore. And they don’t want that to happen. So they really are responsive,” he said.
Let’s set aside for a moment the point that Russia is led by a former KGB officer who has returned it to Soviet-style authoritarianism. The notion the Chinese Communist Party is “responsive” to its people flies in the face of the severe repression underway in Xinjiang, where at least million of them are in camps, and Hong Kong, where authorities are responding to millions marching for their promised rights by storming universities.
It’s no mystery why Bloomberg sees the Beijing leadership through rose-colored glasses. Next week, he will host a major international economic conference in Beijing attended by senior Chinese government and business leaders. Bloomberg wants the conference to out-influence the Davos World Economic Forum.
Last year, Bloomberg had to move the conference to Singapore after Beijing decided not to host it at the last minute. This was attributed to the rising tensions caused by the U.S.-China trade war. Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan still attended.
Bloomberg has personally lobbied against what he sees as Trump’s economic confrontation with China. He often argues Trump’s policy of using tariffs as pressure on Beijing is counterproductive and believes “we just have to find ways to work together,” with China.
In 2013, Bloomberg LP was caught in scandal when it was accused of killing Bloomberg News stories that revealed alleged corruption in China directly related to Xi Jinping’s family members. Bloomberg News denied suppressing the stories, but the New York Times reported that executives feared Bloomberg LP being kicked out of China. Several reporters and editors resigned in protest.
Ben Richardson, editor for Bloomberg’s Asia coverage, later told NPR that Bloomberg News leadership had told him stories about families of the Chinese Politburo were off-limits.
Bloomberg LP doesn’t make money in China only by selling terminals. Through its massive Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index, Bloomberg LP is helping finance Chinese companies by sending billions of U.S. investor dollars into the Chinese bond market.
This year, the index began a 20-month plan to support 364 Chinese firms by directing an estimated $150 billion into their bond offerings, including 159 controlled directly by the Chinese government. Bloomberg, along with other Wall Street firms, is effectively supporting the Chinese government’s efforts to resist the U.S. government’s economic pressure, while exposing American investors to increased risk.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with hosting a conference in China or being close to Chinese leaders. Bloomberg’s view that the United States should overlook the bad behavior of the Chinese government and get along to do business is widely held on Wall Street. If he were elected president, he could disentangle himself from his businesses, as he did while serving as mayor of New York.
But if Bloomberg really believes what he says, his misreading of the Chinese government’s character and ambitions could be devastating for U.S. national security and foreign policy. He would be advocating for a naive policy of engagement and wishful thinking that has already been tried and failed.
Not to mention the fact that appeasing China is bad politics (and will likely remain so in 2020). Donald Trump Jr. called out Bloomberg’s comments about Xi on Twitter last week, saying “Yikes, I guess he’s trying to win over the NBA?!?”
Over the next 12 months, due mostly to the actions of the Chinese government, the crises in Xinjiang and Hong Kong are likely to get worse. More U.S. companies are going to face unfair punishment as the Chinese Communist Party clamps down on Americans’ free speech.
The United States needs a president who sees the China challenge clearly, who recognizes the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party for what they are, and who believes confronting that challenge head on is more important than making money and getting along. Mike Bloomberg is the wrong man for that job.