Election 2020

Is Bloomberg Vulnerable on China and Russia?

The rising Democratic challenger’s business ties to America’s biggest rivals and his sympathetic comments about Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin raise questions about how tough he’d be with them as president.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivers remarks during a campaign rally in Nashville, Tennessee, on Feb. 12.
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivers remarks during a campaign rally in Nashville, Tennessee, on Feb. 12. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Michael Bloomberg, the new rising star in the Democratic Party, is trying to make the case to voters that he’s a better brand of billionaire than Donald Trump—to wit, a real one. In contrast to the president, who has had to resort to contrivance and fakery over the years to tout what he has called his “unbelievable business,” Bloomberg is America’s eighth-richest person and could buy Trump’s entire net worth many times over.

The former New York City mayor insists he’s more honest, too—promising to sell his business, Bloomberg LP, if elected president so “there will be no confusion about any of his financial holdings blurring the line between public service and personal profiteering,” his campaign advisor, Timothy O’Brien, told CNN on Tuesday.

But people who rise to the pinnacle of business success don’t just drop the habits of a lifetime, and as the founder of a global information conglomerate, Bloomberg has had a long and checkered relationship with major nations such as China and Russia. In particular, in his company policies and remarks over the years, Bloomberg has evinced an occasional willingness to adapt his views to those of Beijing and Moscow—or at least to empathize with autocrats.

This happened most notoriously in 2013, when Bloomberg LP editors spiked their own investigative stories on corruption by Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s family members, apparently fearing the government would forbid the company from doing business in China. Bloomberg was later quoted as telling CNBC: “In China, they have rules about what you can publish. We follow those rules. If you don’t follow the rules, you’re not in the country.” His comments conflicted with a fundamental code of Western journalism, which is to speak truth to power no matter the circumstance. 

As columnists and pundits such as Josh Rogin of the Washington Post have noted in recent months, Bloomberg has also sought to cloak Xi’s brutal campaign to consolidate power—which is said to rival that of Mao Zedong—in gentle terms, telling a PBS host last September that the Chinese president wasn’t a “dictator” but instead “has a constituency to answer to.” When the host, Margaret Hoover, gave him a chance to modify his position, asking, “He’s not a dictator?” Bloomberg insisted: “No government survives without the will of the majority of its people. OK?” 

Some commentators suggest Bloomberg has yet to lay out his views clearly in the role of a presidential candidate—especially when it comes to a challenge as complex as China, which is one of America’s top trading partners but also its chief challenger for global influence and power. “Just as Trump seems to bring out the worst in people, so does Xi,” said William Reinsch, a former senior U.S. official and China trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The other candidates have all been competing to see who can take the toughest line, and I don’t expect him to be any different, but maybe he’ll have some angle that’s different.”

But in other remarks over the years, Bloomberg has also appeared to extend sympathy toward Russia over its aggression in Ukraine. In 2015, at a talk at the Aspen Institute, he asked: “What would America do if we had a contiguous country where a lot of people in that country wanted to be Americans? Do Texas and California ring a bell? We just went in and took it.” He added: “I’m not suggesting that Putin’s doing a good thing or that it should be allowed. But we did this. That was 200 years ago, but we did it.” As the Post’s Rogin commented, Bloomberg’s “penchant for false equivalence didn’t stop there.” He also compared the Russian takeover of Crimea and aggressive moves in the Black Sea to the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “And you want a warm water port? Guantánamo Bay ring a bell? Someplace. We kept that,” Bloomberg said. (Bloomberg LP has long had corporate ties to Russia, including as a provider of business and financial news video to RBC TV.)

Bloomberg, who has a meager track record on foreign policy except for issues related to New York City and its security after 9/11, sought to explain that relations with major powers were not simplistic zero-sum games. “I’m just pointing out that all these things are complex,” he said. He also tried to explain Putin’s fears and aggression toward Ukraine by pointing to aggressive NATO expansion up to the former Soviet Union’s borders after the Cold War.

But his comments and corporate outlook suggest that a man who began as a Wall Street trader and then started selling market information to players and governments around the world might take an extreme realist view of foreign relations—one in which economic interests eclipse democracy and human rights. Though he built a global journalistic giant, his company’s business model has been based mainly on that valuable flow of investor intelligence provided by Bloomberg LP, not on the purveyance of Western values of free speech. 

Indeed, his critics say, Bloomberg has sometimes demonstrated a disturbing tendency to suppress free speech when it comes to his own reputation. In a column published Tuesday in the Intercept, the journalist Leta Hong Fincher, the wife of one of the reporters on the suppressed 2013 investigative series about corruption in China, said Bloomberg’s company tried to silence her with a nondisclosure agreement. And his representatives reportedly asked the Aspen Institute not to distribute footage of his 2015 remarks, which included his now controversial comments defending the “stop and frisk” policy toward minorities in New York.

Apart from declaring that a President Bloomberg would divorce himself from his company’s interests, the Bloomberg campaign hasn’t yet addressed these questions in any detail. With his debut on the debate stage Wednesday, he may soon have to. Or as his Democratic presidential rival Sen. Amy Klobuchar told NBC Nightly News: “He’s got to answer questions like the rest of us have been doing for an entire year.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh