WASHINGTON — It remains to be seen whether Democratic voters will embrace Michael Bloomberg now that he is officially a 2020 candidate. But his late entry should be welcome news to Chinese leaders.
The billionaire and former New York City mayor is likely the field’s most Beijing-friendly candidate. He’s argued against the U.S.-China trade war, maintained investments in China, hosted a conference there and frequently speaks up on behalf of its regime. His approach has drawn criticism from conservatives — but it also represents a vulnerability in a Democratic race that has embraced a more confrontational posture toward the Chinese government.
It’s an issue Bloomberg is wrestling with in real time. Just last week, as he prepared to jump into the race, he canceled a planned appearance in Beijing at the New Economy Forum, a conference hosted by his company, Bloomberg LP, and attended by top Chinese officials.
He tapped former treasury secretary Hank Paulson to open the event in his stead. “My good friend Michael Bloomberg asked Henry Kissinger and me to represent him here today, because, as you all know, he’s made a decision to serve his country,” Paulson said, name-checking the former secretary of state who has long worked to promote ties between the United States and China.
Bloomberg’s view of China’s authoritarian government has elicited closer scrutiny since he began signaling an interest in a bid he’d sworn off earlier this year. In particular, he faced blowback for defending Chinese President Xi Jinping 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 on the show. “Xi Jinping is not a dictator. He has to satisfy his constituents or he’s not going to survive.”
Pressed by host Margaret Hoover on whether he really believes Xi is not a dictator, Bloomberg emphasized his point. “No, he has a constituency to answer to,” Bloomberg said. “No government survives without the will of the majority of its people, OK? 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.” This is a stark contrast to the situation on the ground, where more than a million Muslim Uighurs have been forced into detention camps and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong face live rounds and tear gas.
The claim flies in the face of a spate of Chinese crackdowns, including the forcing of over a million Musliim Uighurs into detention camps and the use of live rounds and tear gas on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The exchange prompted Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin to write that Bloomberg’s “record on China shows he is the wrong person to guide our country in confronting this historic challenge.”
Rogin went on to detail Bloomberg’s extensive financial interest in the country:
“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.”
Rogin argued that there is nothing inherently wrong with Bloomberg’s business activities in China — it is, after all, a common practice on Wall Street. “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 wrote. “He would be advocating for a naive policy of engagement and wishful thinking that has already been tried and failed.”
Bloomberg’s accommodating approach to China has extended to his media company. Bloomberg News in 2013 killed news stories that could have angered Chinese leaders, The New York Times reported. The outlet’s top editor at the time denied the story.
As President Donald Trump ramped up his trade war with Beijing last year, the former mayor called for another path forward. Speaking at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters at a conference co-hosted China General Chamber of Commerce USA, he said the U.S. and China must “find ways to work together. Other countries around the world, again, including China, are responding with their tariffs and we don’t need a trade war.”
The other Democratic contenders have staked out a range of positions on China. But the consensus in the field holds the U.S. needs to confront Chinese trading abuses. That view reflects popular opinion, which has turned heavily unfavorable toward China.