Speaking at the World Economic Forum last Thursday, George Soros, the billionaire investor and progressive political activist, warned the world of the threat posed by a powerful and authoritarian China under Xi Jinping, its core leader.

Using his remarks at the Davos-based WEF’s annual gathering on January 24 “to warn the world about an unprecedented danger that’s threatening the very survival of open societies” and “to call attention to the mortal danger facing open societies from the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes,” the Hungarian-born philanthropist vehemently focused “on China, where Xi Jinping wants a one-party state to reign supreme.”

The 88-year-old businessman said, “A lot of things have happened since last year and I’ve learned a lot about the shape that totalitarian control is going to take in China.” One such thing was the Chinese government’s use of “all the rapidly expanding information available about a person … consolidated in a centralized database to create a ‘social credit system’.” Based on that data, he stressed, “people will be evaluated by algorithms that will determine whether they pose a threat to the one-party state. People will then be treated accordingly.”

The “social credit system” Soros talked about was first announced in 2014 and is being piloted in some parts of the 1.3-billion-people nation. It is due to be fully operational nationwide by next year (2020).

According to the philanthropist, when the program is fully operational in the world’s most populous country, it “will subordinate the fate of the individual to the interests of the one-party state in ways unprecedented in history.” More precisely, in his view, if it became operational, it “would give Xi total control over the people”. That’s why he found the system “frightening and abhorrent.”

The main reason why Soros was frightened was that China is “undoubtedly the wealthiest, strongest and most developed in machine learning and artificial intelligence. This makes Xi Jinping the most dangerous opponent of those who believe in the concept of open society.”

Belt and Road Initiative

Besides the social credit system, some of China’s other policies, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s foreign flagship policy and Xi’s pet project, also attracted his ire. The trillion-dollar initiative, unveiled by Xi in 2013, “has been in operation long enough to reveal its deficiencies,” he negatively observed.

“It was designed to promote the interests of China, not the interests of the recipient countries; its ambitious infrastructure projects were mainly financed by loans, not by grants, and foreign officials were often bribed to accept them. Many of these projects proved to be uneconomic.” That’s why, he argued, the Beijing-financed projects are “causing widespread resentment” and some countries, notably Malaysia, are pushing back against them.

Under President Donald Trump, Soros noted, the US has also realized the danger posed by China and, consequently, identified the Asian behemoth as a “strategic rival.”

But, in his view, declaring it “a strategic rival is too simplistic” because China is now a global power. To deal with it, he argued, the US needs an effective policy, which “needs to be far more sophisticated, detailed and practical,” including an economic response to Beijing’s BRI.

What’s more, he urged, “instead of waging a trade war with practically the whole world,” the Trump administration “should focus on China.” And, “instead of letting ZTE and Huawei [China’s two tech giants] off lightly, it needs to crack down on them” because “if these companies came to dominate the 5G market, they would present an unacceptable security risk for the rest of the world,” he warned.

The Hungarian-born Jewish businessman, who has spent billions of his own money funding human rights and democratic endeavors worldwide, became the first well-known international figure to have launched such a scathing attack on China and, particularly, its supreme leader

With such comments, the Hungarian-born Jewish businessman, who has spent billions of his own money funding human rights and democratic endeavors worldwide, became the first well-known international figure to have launched such a scathing attack on China and, particularly, its supreme leader. What’s more, he made such a rebuke at the exact international venue, where two years ago, Xi Jinping confidently painted his country – or perhaps himself – as a benevolent global citizen dedicated to “building a community of shared future for mankind.”

Given that, it’s not surprising that Beijing reacted angrily and sarcastically to his intervention. When asked to comment about his remarks, at a regular press briefing on January 25, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “It is meaningless and worthless to refute these words made by certain individual that call white black and confuse right and wrong … We hope the relevant American can correct his attitude, not be short-sighted, and hold an objective, rational and correct opinion of China’s development.”

But, though they may not be as strong and direct as the billionaire’s attack, criticisms against China and Xi’s policies are quite widespread.

In its “resolution on the state of EU-China relations” adopted in September 2018, the European Parliament “firmly rejects the public naming and shaming of blacklisted persons as an integral part of the social credit system.” It also “underlines the importance and necessity of a dialogue between the EU institutions and their Chinese counterparts on all serious societal consequences of the present central planning and local experiments with the social credit system.”

In a much-talked-about speech on China three months later, US Vice President Mike Pence reproached a wide range of Beijing’s policies, including its social credit system, which he regarded as “an Orwellian system, premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.”

A recent report published by Freedom House wrote, “Leaders in Beijing have stepped up efforts to use digital media to increase their own power, both at home and abroad. China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018.” It also noted that “the social credit system probably poses a greater threat to civil liberties than any private initiative.” What’s more, according to this US-based democracy watchdog, the communist-ruled People’s Republic of China has exported its surveillance technology to other authoritarian countries.

It’s is worth noting that in his remarks, Soros revealed, last year he “still believed that China ought to be more deeply embedded in the institutions of global governance, but since then Xi Jinping’s behavior has changed my opinion.”

In that speech, he mentioned some of Xi’s “excesses,” including the abolition of the two-term presidential limits and “the cult of personality that Xi had built around himself,” both of which a Chinese leadership convocation last autumn “disapproved of.”

The European Parliament’s resolution, Pence’s speech and Freedom House’s report noted, explicitly or implicitly, Xi’s consolidation of power and, consequently, Beijing’s rising authoritarianism – especially since the Communist Party of China’s National Congress in October 2017 and the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, in March 2018.

“Xi Jinping Thought”

Without doubt, with his “Xi Jinping Thought” enshrined in the CPC’s charter at its five-yearly congress in 2017 and in the PRC’s constitution at the 2018 NPC, which also abolished the presidential limits, Xi has become China’s most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, who ruled the PRC with absolute power and an iron fist since its foundation in 1949 to his death in 1976.

Under Xi’s powerful and authoritarian rule, China has also adopted a much more forceful foreign policy.

Addressing the CPC’s 2017 congress and the NPC’s 2018 conference, the strongman leader proclaimed that China “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong” and “with an entirely new posture, now stands tall and firm in the East.”

Xi also announced his country had entered “a new era … that sees [it] moving closer to [the world’s] center stage.” Moreover, he hailed his one-party nation’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” calling it Chinese wisdom, approach, solution and strength to the world.

All of this, justified or not, has increasingly led people, especially those in the West and all those who support a democratic liberal world order in general, to be more wary of China and wish to adopt a tougher posture against it. In their view, a powerful, authoritarian and forceful China is not good for their countries and the world at large.