At first glance, Michael Bloomberg’s campaign for the Democratic nomination looked like the answer to a question no one asked.
Perhaps a few Democratic-primary voters were pining for a corporate-friendly centrist who lacked Joe Biden’s appeal to nonwhite people and one-upped his baggage on issues of racial justice, financial regulation, entitlement spending, and sexual harassment. But while this constituency may be large enough to fully staff a “Conscious Capitalism” panel at Davos, it seems far too small to supply the billionaire with a plurality of Democratic delegates.
It’s now clear, however, that Bloomberg is casting a wider net. In a recent interview with PBS — which recirculated on social media on Sunday — the former New York mayor signaled that he intends to run in the “unrepentant Stalinist” lane of the Democratic primary. Asked by Firing Line’s Margaret Hoover about how the U.S. can get China and India to be good partners in the fight against climate change, Bloomberg argued that the Chinese Communist Party was ecologically friendly, democratically accountable, and invulnerable to the threat of revolution.
Bloomberg: China is doing a lot. Yes, they’re still building a lot of coal-fired power plants.
Hoover: And they’re still burning coal.
Bloomberg: Yes, they are, but they’re now moving plants away from the cities. The Communisty Party wants to stay in power in China, and they listen to the public. When the public says I can’t breathe the air, Xi Jinping is not a dictator; he has to satisfy his constituents or he’s not going to survive.
Hoover: He’s not a dictator?
Bloomberg: No, he has a constituency to answer to.
Hoover: He doesn’t have a vote. He doesn’t have a democracy. He’s not held accountable by voters.
Bloomberg: If his advisers gave him —
Hoover: Is the check on him just a revolution?
Bloomberg: You’re not going to have a revolution. No government survives without the will of the majority of its people.
Bloomberg’s views here stand in stark contrast to those of Bernie Sanders. Although some centrist pundits have declared the Vermont senator a proto-authoritarian leftist, Sanders’s own rhetoric belies that title. The self-avowed “socialist” has cast Xi’s China as the leader of an “international authoritarian axis,” one that has been “clamping down on domestic political freedom while it aggressively promotes a version of authoritarian capitalism abroad.” Sanders’s broadsides against Chinese communism have led some on the left to decry him as a bourgeois deviationist and imperialist dog. Thus Bloomberg’s apparent aim is to assemble a motley coalition of penthouse-owning executives with a financial interest in appeasing Beijing and basement-dwelling “tankies” with an ideological investment in Xi Jinping Thought.
Okay: Michael Bloomberg is probably not making a conscious play for the “kratom-track” Maoist vote in South Carolina. But it is remarkable how much the patron saint of neoliberal paternalism’s views on China overlap with those of “tankie” Twitter. It’s hard to imagine that a figure like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren could have argued that Xi is not a dictator — and that the Chinese Communist Party is accountable to majoritarian opinion — without suffering broad bipartisan condemnation. Yet Bloomberg’s remarks in September prompted few calumnious columns on the authoritarianism of the anti-populist center. Which is unfortunate, since the U.S. business community’s interests in Beijing make this political tendency a genuine threat.
As a substantive matter, Bloomberg does have a small kernel of a point: The Chinese government does not rule by brute force alone, enjoys significant popular support, and has demonstrated a concern with responding to certain forms of public disaffection — including complaints about air quality in the nation’s primary cities. But it is unclear why Bloomberg thinks “They’re now moving [coal] plants away from the cities” qualifies as evidence of China’s commitment to combating climate change. If a coal plant spews C02 in the middle of a forest and no one (with political power) is around to complain about it, it still makes Earth warmer. Even if we accept that Xi is accountable to public opinion, it does not follow that his government will pursue sustainable development. Nations with formal mechanisms of democratic accountability have been almost universally shirking their obligations under the Paris accords. Meanwhile, China’s supposed responsiveness to popular concerns about pollution has coincided with regressive changes in its overall energy policy. Since 2017, Beijing’s annual investment in clean energy has fallen from $76 billion to $29 billion. In the coming years, it plans to add about as much new coal-power capacity as currently exists in the entire European Union.
So Bloomberg’s initial answer is a non sequitur at best, and his subsequent ruminations on the character of Xi’s regime are something worse. In a nation where critical speech is censored (if not criminally punished) and the public is inundated with state propaganda, what does “the will of the majority” mean exactly? And if an authoritarian ruler enjoys the approval of 51 percent of the population, does that mean he cannot be a “dictator,” no matter what he does to disenfranchised minority groups? And if “no government survives without the will of the majority of its people,” does that mean most residents of apartheid South Africa approved the ruling regime right up until the early 1990s, when black opinion in the country suddenly changed?
It may be difficult to discern the logic of Bloomberg’s apologia for Xi. But it’s quite easy to posit a logical reason for Bloomberg to spew illogical apologies for the Communist Party: The billionaire has vast financial interests in China, and those interests have allegedly compromised his civic-minded endeavors in the past. In 2013, the New York Times reported that Bloomberg News had killed an investigation that had threatened to upset Chinese officials.
Donald Trump has tried to paint his Democratic opponents as cosseted coastal elites who are in bed with China, exert undue influence over the mainstream media, and want to tell working-class Americans how to live. If Democrats somehow nominate Bloomberg, Trump’s ideal foil will be made of money instead of straw.