By Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett
January 26, 2019

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were no-shows at this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos. Even so, strained relations between their nations dominated discussion at the alpine talkfest. Speeches by Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and financier George Soros sketched starkly different visions of China’s future.

Wang’s main mission was to reassure the West that China’s economy is on track. “There will be a lot of uncertainties in 2019, but something that is certain is that China’s growth will continue and will be sustainable,” he declared. Earlier in the week, China gave global investors a scare by announcing that its economy grew by 6.6% in 2018, China’s slowest rate of expansion in three decades. Wang insisted 6.6% growth should be considered a “pretty significant number.”

Wang also portrayed China as a staunch defender of free trade and open markets and made several thinly veiled digs at Trump for his “America First” economic agenda. “We reject the policies of the strong bullying the weak and self-claimed supremacy,” he said.

Soros repudiated Wang’s characterization of China as a benign global citizen in a lengthy critique at a private dinner Thursday. “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,” he warned. “This makes Xi Jinping the most dangerous opponent of those who believe in the concept of open society.”

Soros warned of China’s rapid advances in data collection and artificial intelligence, and decried the state’s attempts to create a social credit rating system that would enable China’s leaders to “subordinate the fate of the individual to the interests of the one-party state in ways unprecedented in history.” Soros also criticized Xi’s signature “Belt and Road Initiative,” meant to expand land and sea links between China, Europe and the Middle East, as “designed to promote the interests of China, not the interests of the recipient countries.”

Soros has long been a favorite bogeyman of American conservatives, who claim he has used his vast wealth to subvert Republican causes. And yet the Hungarian-born billionaire’s comments at Davos put him in remarkable alignment with Trump on China. At Davos, Soros praised vice president Mike Pence’s hawkish October China address as a “seminal speech,” and hailed efforts of Matt Pottinger, Asian affairs advisor for Trump’s National Security Council and an advocate of tougher U.S. policies towards China.

Soros’s remarks drew a swift rebuke from China’s foreign ministry. “We hope the relevant American can correct his attitude, not be shortsighted, and hold an objective, rational and correct opinion of China’s development,” said spokeswoman Hua Chenying.

More China news below.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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