In announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination last week, former New York mayor and media tycoon Mike Bloomberg added a new wrinkle to the ongoing debate about President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, and perhaps further, to the entire relationship between Washington and Beijing.
Bloomberg represents something unique in the Democratic primary field — an unreconstructed free-trader who also takes a far less critical view of China’s repressive internal policies than many of his opponents.
Since well before declaring his candidacy, Bloomberg has been a loud critic of Trump on trade policy, saying the president’s sanctions-heavy approach to negotiation with China and other countries “set new benchmarks of incoherence and irresponsibility.”
During the Obama administration, Bloomberg voiced support for multilateral trade agreements that are now criticized not just by Trump, but also by many of the current Democratic presidential candidates.
Bloomberg, whose international media empire has long-established ties to China and regularly hosts high-profile conferences there, is also an outlier in terms of his thinking about the nature of the Chinese Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping.
Defends Xi’s government
In an interview for the PBS television show "Firing Line" in September, Bloomberg drew sharp criticism after seeming to defend Xi’s government as responsive to its people and fundamentally democratic.
“The Communist Party wants to stay in power in China, and they listen to the public,” he said. “Xi Jinping is not a dictator. He has to satisfy his constituents or he’s not going to survive.”
At the time, mass pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong were facing a violent response from the Chinese government, and news reports about the brutal repression of the Uighur minority in China’s Xinjiang Province were widespread.
When the host expressed her incredulity at his position, citing Xi’s repressive policies, Bloomberg dug in deeper.
“No, he has a constituency to answer to,” he 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.”
Avoids China human rights issues
Bloomberg seemed to base his belief in the Chinese government’s responsiveness to its citizens on its willingness to try to ameliorate the choking pollution that blankets many of its major cities. But he did not address the bedrock issues of political freedom and basic human rights.
On trade and the issue of China’s treatment of its own citizens, Bloomberg stands apart from most of the front-runners in the Democratic field.
Up to this point in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, candidates’ positions on relations with China have been complicated by the fact that some of the top contenders want to distance themselves from Trump in every respect, even when they seem to agree with his use of tariffs to force Beijing to reform its trade policies.
Differs from Warren and Sanders
Top contenders like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are explicitly open to protectionist trade policies, though they are quick to claim they would implement them differently.
Warren, in an outline of her trade policies, said that in her view “tariffs are an important tool.” But she criticized Trump’s “haphazard” implementation of them. Unlike Trump, she said, she believes tariffs “are not by themselves a long-term solution to our failed trade agenda and must be part of a broader strategy that this administration clearly lacks.”
Sanders has vowed to undertake a “full review” of Trump’s trade policies to determine “which tariffs are working.” He added, “Tariffs may be part of the answer, but the Trump administration lacks a serious strategy for reducing our trade deficit or bringing back U.S. jobs that have been shipped to low-wage countries. Instead of conducting trade policy by tweet, we need a complete overhaul of our trade policies to increase American jobs, end the race to the bottom, raise wages and lift up living standards in this country and throughout the world.”
Buttigieg far more critical of tariffs
Pete Buttigieg, the outgoing mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is more critical of tariffs in principle, but does not close the door on their use as a tool of trade policy. He has said he would use tariffs as “leverage” in trade talks. However, he told The Washington Post, “Because tariffs can be de facto domestic taxes, imposing real costs on American workers and farmers, they should be employed only with a clear strategy and endgame, and in coordination with our allies.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the Democratic field in national polls, has been inconsistent in his public statements about China. Shortly after announcing his candidacy last spring, he seemed to challenge the idea that the world’s most populous country was even a real economic competitor for the United States.
Biden sanguine about China threat
“China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” Biden said at an appearance in Iowa. Arguing that Beijing is too busy with its internal problems to mount a serious economic threat to the U.S., he added, “They can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
The statement earned Biden immediate blowback from all sides, and forced him to acknowledge that China is “a serious challenge to us, and in some areas a real threat.”
Since then, Biden has maintained the position that the U.S. has to stand up to China on trade, but he has done so with vague statements such as, “My administration will bring our allies together to challenge China’s abusive behavior and rally more than half the world’s economy to hold China to account for their cheating. We also need to tighten up our economic defenses so that American companies don’t have to keep giving away technology to China, or having it stolen.”
On the question of China’s treatment of its own people, most of the Democrats in the field are far more willing to criticize Beijing than Bloomberg appears to be. All four of the top candidates have loudly condemned the treatment of the Uighurs and the repression of Hong Kong’s pro-Democracy movement.
Bloomberg’s restraint when it comes to criticizing China is not a new thing. In 2013, Bloomberg LP, the company that controls his global media empire, was found to have killed news stories revealing corruption in the Chinese Communist Party, prompting the resignation of a number of editors and reporters.
With U.S.-Chinese relations growing in importance, a Bloomberg candidacy will give Democratic primary voters a very different option than those currently on offer. What remains to be seen is if there will be many takers.