Despite the ongoing battle over trade with the United States, China was the preeminent force at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, dominating conversations about trade and policy during the annual gathering of the world’s financial elites.
But there was one prominent voice who pushed back on Beijing’s dominance of the event. And it wasn’t a U.S. official or a conservative ally of the Trump administration — it was billionaire George Soros.
Indeed, though Trump and Soros are diametrically opposed in most aspects of their worldviews, when the liberal financier and philanthropist offered a lengthy criticism of China at a private dinner on Thursday, there were points where his criticism of China was not so far from that of Trump and his allies.
“China isn’t the only authoritarian regime in the world, but it’s undoubtedly the wealthiest, strongest and most developed in machine learning and artificial intelligence,” Soros said, according to a transcript published on his website. “This makes Xi Jinping the most dangerous opponent of those who believe in the concept of open society.”
Such direct comments are rare for a member of the global financial elite; they quickly drew a rebuke from the Chinese foreign ministry on Friday, with spokeswoman Hua Chunying telling reporters that the remarks were “meaningless and not worth refuting."
“We hope the relevant American can correct his attitude, not be shortsighted, and hold an objective, rational and correct opinion of China’s development,” Hua said, Reuters reported.
The 88-year-old Soros was born in Hungary and later became a naturalized U.S. citizen (he also holds British citizenship). He is far from an ally of the U.S. administration. Republican lawmakers and other conservatives in the United States have long accused Soros of using his vast wealth to subvert democracy against them.
President Trump himself has spread conspiracy theories suggesting that Soros paid people to protest the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, accused of a sexual assault while a teenager, in the summer. A more recent theory has claimed, without proof, that Soros was funding the migrant caravans making their way toward the border between Mexico and the United States that are a frequent subject of Trump’s ire.
And yet on China, Soros and Trump find themselves awkwardly aligned. And though one focuses on trade and the other on politics, there did appear to be moments of overlap in their views.
In his Davos remarks, Soros specifically criticized China’s global trade infrastructure project, Belt and Road, as well as Beijing’s push for artificial intelligence and even some of its unfair trade practices. All are favored targets of Trump administration officials — officials who were absent from the World Economic Forum because of the ongoing partial government shutdown.
Soros noted, too, that, under Trump, the United States had labeled China a “strategic rival.” He identified Matt Pottinger, Asian affairs adviser of the National Security Council, as the driving force behind that policy and said that it had been outlined in a “seminal speech” by Vice President Pence on Oct. 4.
During that speech, Pence had suggested that China “wants a different American president” and that the nation “is meddling in America’s democracy.” Pence also said that U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods were not designed to hurt China’s market. “The United States wants Beijing to pursue trade policies that are free, fair and reciprocal. And we will continue to stand and demand that they do,” Pence said.
However, Soros also criticized the way that the Trump administration’s China policy appeared to be turning. “Instead of letting ZTE and Huawei off lightly, it needs to crack down on them,” he said, referring to two Chinese tech and telecoms giants under increasing U.S. scrutiny. “If these companies came to dominate the 5G market, they would present an unacceptable security risk for the rest of the world.”
He laid the blame squarely on the U.S. president, who he worried was focused on making a deal ahead of the 2020 elections.
“Regrettably, President Trump seems to be following a different course: make concessions to China and declare victory while renewing his attacks on U.S. allies,” he added. “This is liable to undermine the U.S. policy objective of curbing China’s abuses and excesses.”