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KEEPING SOCIETIES OPEN

George Soros says Hong Kong’s protests and Italy’s “sardines” are glimmers of hope

Reuters/Lisi Niesner
Staying on message.
  • Isabella Steger
By Isabella Steger

Asia deputy editor

Davos, Switzerland

For the second year in a row at his annual dinner at the World Economic Forum in Davos, financier and philanthropist George Soros warned of the rise of totalitarianism, with his vitriol directed in particular at US president Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The 89-year-old highlighted said that the two leaders were enemies of “open societies,” and were both trying to “extend the powers of their office to its limit and beyond.” He called Trump’s “narcissism” a “malignant disease,” while Xi’s hunger for power drove him to “abolished a carefully developed system of collective leadership” to become a dictator.

Last year at Davos, Soros called Xi the world’s “most dangerous opponent” of open societies, highlighting in particular China’s social credit system. At this year’s dinner, he said that democracies must find a way to counter the system. If Xi succeeds in building it, he said, he would bring into existence “a new type of human being who is willing to surrender his personal autonomy in order to stay out of trouble.”

Trump, he said, is unwittingly boosting Xi’s ambitions because he is willing to do anything for personal gain, such as “putting Huawei on the bargaining table.” Soros added that even though China is the “only bipartisan issue” that the Trump White House has produced, the biggest threat to that bipartisanship is Trump’s ability to “violate it with impunity.”

Soros, who has donated large sums of money to promote democracy around the world through his Open Society Foundations, also said that in the rising tide of nationalism around the world, India was the “biggest and most frightening setback,” because of its marginalization of Muslims.

The billionaire announced a $1 billion donation to what he said was a new international network of universities aimed at promoting liberal education, following the far-right Hungarian government’s expulsion of the Soros-founded Central European University. The initiative, he said, is part of that long-term strategy to push back against the growing trend of authoritarianism everywhere.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. “The greatest shortcoming of dictatorships is that when they are successful, they don’t know when or how to stop being repressive,” said Soros. Mass revolts are the natural reaction when repression becomes too harsh, as demonstrated by the protests that have recently broken out in countries around the world.

The protests in Hong Kong have been “the most successful rebellion” so far, Soros said, adding that they offered a lesson for social movements elsewhere. “It has no visibly identifiable leadership and yet it has the overwhelming support of the population.” A caveat, however, is that the Hong Kong protests may come at a “great cost” and “destroy the city’s economic prosperity,” he added.

Another social movement that was heartening, said Soros, was the youth-led “sardines” protests against Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini. Late last year, thousands of Italians rapidly organized and gathered in cities across the country, packing squares tightly like the fish.

“Sardines are the Italian variant of a worldwide trend led by young people,” said Soros. “This leads me to conclude that today’s youth may have found a way to confront nationalist dictatorships.”

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