Bloomberg moves new forum for elites from China to Singapore amid fallout of trade war

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg wants to engage with China on issues such as trade and climate change. The event was planned to rival Davos in Switzerland.
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg wants to engage with China on issues such as trade and climate change. The event was planned to rival Davos in Switzerland.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Fallout from the trade war between the United States and China has prompted Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media executive and former mayor of New York City, to relocate what was planned as a conference of global business and political leaders in Beijing. The event was to rival Davos, the elite annual conclave in Switzerland.

Organisers in New York are moving the event to Singapore, where it is to take place over two days in the first week of November. Mr Bloomberg made the decision after a Chinese partner asked organisers last week to postpone the event, according to people with knowledge of the planning.

Instead, the partner told organisers, President Xi Jinping and other leaders in China want to spotlight an import expo in Shanghai to bolster international interest in trade with the country.

The move highlights the difficulty of conducting business - or diplomacy - in China, both because of rising tensions with the US and because of an accelerating move towards hard authoritarianism under Mr Xi. The relationship between Washington and Beijing has become increasingly fraught because of the trade war started by President Donald Trump over the summer, and Chinese officials are more likely to question US-led events in China, even those that aim to bring business leaders there.

On Wednesday afternoon (Aug 29), Mr Trump said on Twitter that the trade dispute would be "resolved in time" by him and "China's great President Xi Jinping".

"Their relationship and bond remain very strong," he said, continuing to refer to himself in the third person.

The Shanghai event, announced by Mr Xi last year, has taken on new significance for Chinese leaders because of the trade war, which has lasted much longer than they had anticipated, the people said.

Officials are aiming to use the expo to send a positive message about trade to other nations. As a result, they are reluctant to allow other events that could compete with it.

The Chinese partner for the summit meeting - called the New Economy Forum and intended to be held in Beijing - asked organisers to postpone the event, even though it was supposed to highlight China's growing dominance in the global economy. Invitations had been sent to 400 business and political figures, 300 of them from outside China.

The involvement of so many prominent people and companies who for years maintained strong ties with China makes the decision to move the event surprising.

 
 
 

Chairmen of the conference's advisory board include Dr Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and national security adviser, and Mr Henry Paulson Jr, the former Treasury secretary, both of whom occasionally meet Chinese leaders and preach engagement with China. Among the international corporate partners are ExxonMobil, HSBC and SoftBank Group, based in Japan.

The Chinese partner, the China Centre for Economic International Exchanges, is a research centre based in Beijing that is led by Mr Zeng Peiyan, a former vice-premier. Its mission, according to the centre's website, includes "promoting exchanges and cooperation" and "to improve China's soft power". The group did not respond to phone calls and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Its request last week came as a blow to Mr Bloomberg, who wants to engage with China on issues such as trade and climate change.

Organisers scrambled to find another site, and prominent Singaporeans agreed to host, the people familiar with planning said. The Chinese centre is still expected to send some participants, but there will now be less of a focus on China, and programmers are scrambling to line up speakers after some dropped out, the people said.

"I think it's more clear that the increasing tensions in the US-China relationship are having an impact on everything," said Mr Scott Mulhauser, the former chief of staff to Mr Max Baucus, an ambassador to China under the Obama administration, and founder of Aperture Strategies, a public relations firm.

"I think Bloomberg navigated this one impressively. It's not clear that everyone can."

The strengthening of authoritarianism in China poses a quandary for Westerners who want to engage with the country but also say that they champion liberal thought and freedoms, as Mr Bloomberg does.

In that context, some experts say, the move to Singapore could benefit the event.

"It's almost impossible to do anything in China that's meaningful," said Mr Orville Schell, the director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, who has organised events in China.

"As much as we see a need to have frank and honest discussions, it's almost impossible to confect such a thing in China. In my opinion, Singapore is a much better choice."

Mr Bloomberg is said to again be weighing a run for president in 2020. If that is the case, then keeping a distance from China could be advantageous, since it has become a punching bag for US politicians across ideologies.

In Washington, some policymakers are taking a more sceptical view of business executives who maintain friendly ties with Beijing.

Organisers of the event said in a statement on Wednesday that their Chinese partner had asked to postpone the conference until autumn of 2019 and that Singapore was then chosen for this year "because of its position as one of the world's leading international and business hubs".

The statement was posted online after queries from The New York Times.

Most topics for the forum listed on the event's website are broad and innocuous - global governance, technology, urbanisation, climate, inclusion and finance and capital markets. But one topic - trade - has new contentiousness associated with it.

One person familiar with conversations between organisers and the Chinese centre said neither side objected to the programming.

Even a mention that Mr Steve Bannon, Mr Trump's former chief strategist who is an outspoken critic of China, might participate did not draw an objection, the person said. (Mr Bannon was invited to Beijing in September 2017 to meet senior Communist Party official Wang Qishan.)

In May, the announcement of the conference was widely covered by major news publications.

Mr Bloomberg told the Financial Times that the forum would differ from Davos in that it would focus on "actionable solutions" and address questions around "China as an emerging power and how we all work together".

In recent years, Mr Bloomberg has generally tried to stay on friendly terms with Chinese officials, although the relationship is complicated.

As the mayor of New York, he presided over at least one public display of criticism of the Chinese government. In May 2011, he appeared at an unveiling of a sculpture of Chinese zodiac heads by Ai Weiwei, China's most famous dissident artist, whom the Beijing police had detained at the time. Mr Bloomberg described the detention as "very disturbing" and called for his release.

Yet, Mr Bloomberg is also committed to free trade and global issues that require working with China, including climate change. Both Mr Bloomberg and Chinese leaders have separately criticised the Trump administration for withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

Bloomberg News, which Mr Bloomberg founded, was punished by the Chinese government in 2012 for coverage about Mr Xi's family wealth. As a result of a government ban on Bloomberg financial terminals being bought by Chinese clients, editors decided to engage in self-censorship. In 2014, a top Bloomberg executive said in a speech in Hong Kong that the company should have reconsidered articles that deviated from its core coverage of straightforward business news.