Soros Warns Against AI Promoted Surveillance and Authoritarianism; Singles Out China’s Existing Tools and Ambitions

When squillionaires are on the right side of an issue, their efforts should be applauded.

George Soros has been a vigorous critic of Big Tech surveillance and lambasted Google and Facebook last year at Davos. This year, he returned to this theme and highlighted China’s wide ranging domestic spying powers and some of its disturbing tools, like its social score. Soros depicted China’s AI ambitions as a planned assault on individual freedom. Even more remarkably, backed the Trump administration plans to take on China and encouraged it to go further, specifically by competing with China’s Belt and Road program.

A cognitive bias is the halo effect, the tendency to see people as all good or all bad. Even if you deplore Soros’ adventurism in Ukraine, Soros also kept public universities across Eastern Europe from collapsing when the USSR broke up. Soros has become vocal about the dangers of surveillance and particularly the use of AI and machine learning to greatly increase their effectiveness.

If you are as old as I am, you may recall that one of the reason the West felt so threatened by the USSR was that it had industrialized in a generation, a stunning accomplishment. The West was alarmed that a command and control society could mobilize resources more effectively than a lassiez faire economy.

Soros gives a 21st century version of the fear that authoritarian societies can use surveillance technology to control and direct their populations. Soros singles out China as far and away the biggest threat. From his speech:

China isn’t the only authoritarian regime in the world, but it’s 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.

How can open societies be protected if these new technologies give authoritarian regimes a built-in advantage? That’s the question that preoccupies me. And it should also preoccupy all those who prefer to live in an open society.

Wired give a good recap:

China’s government issued a broad AI strategy in 2017, asserting that it would surpass US prowess in the technology by 2030. As in the US, much of the leading work on AI in China takes place inside a handful of large tech companies, such as search engine Baidu and retailer and payments company Alibaba.

Soros argued that AI-centric tech companies like those can become enablers of authoritarianism. He pointed to China’s developing “social credit” system, aimed at tracking citizens’ reputations by logging financial activity, online interactions, and even energy use, among other things. The system is still taking shape, but depends on data and cooperation from companies like payments firm Ant Financial, a spinout of Alibaba. “The social credit system, if it became operational, would give Xi Jinping total control over the people,” Soros said.

Soros argued that synergy like that between corporate and government AI projects creates a more potent threat than was posed by Cold War–era autocrats, many of whom spurned corporate innovation. “The combination of repressive regimes with IT monopolies endows those regimes with a built-in advantage over open societies,” Soros said. “They pose a mortal threat to open societies.”

Having said that, it’s not hard to see why one can wonder about Soros’s “open society” when he describes how, in the 1980s, he chose and backed scholars whose views he liked. Social engineering by a foreigner…pretty fraught.

In what may come as a surprise, Soros backs Trump’s efforts to contain China and urges him to do more:

Most importantly, the US government has now identified China as a “strategic rival.” President Trump is notoriously unpredictable, but this decision was the result of a carefully prepared plan. Since then, the idiosyncratic behavior of Trump has been largely superseded by a China policy adopted by the agencies of the administration and overseen by Asian affairs advisor of the National Security Council Matt Pottinger and others. The policy was outlined in a seminal speech by Vice President Mike Pence on October 4th….

Last year I 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. My present view is that instead of waging a trade war with practically the whole world, the US should focus on China. Instead of letting ZTE and Huawei off lightly, it needs to crack down on them. If these companies came to dominate the 5G market, they would present an unacceptable security risk for the rest of the world.

Soros also contends, giving specific examples, that China’s Belt and Road program has been funding projects with loans rather than grants, that bribery is common to get the projects approved, and they are often uneconomic, putting China in a position to squeeze the borrower. As the Financial Times noted:

An outspoken critic of US president Donald Trump and a bogeyman for populist leaders around the world, Mr Soros said the Trump administration had developed “a coherent policy” towards China.

Mr Trump was notoriously unpredictable, he declared, but the US government had rightly identified China as a strategic rival.

He called for an American response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which he said was designed to promote the interests of Beijing rather than those of recipient countries. He singled out China’s actions in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Pakistan.

Now to the full text of Soros’s remarks:

* * *

I want to use my time tonight to warn the world about an unprecedented danger that’s threatening the very survival of open societies.

Last year when I stood before you I spent most of my time analyzing the nefarious role of the IT monopolies. This is what I said: “An alliance is emerging between authoritarian states and the large data rich IT monopolies that bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developing system of state sponsored surveillance. This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even George Orwell could have imagined.”

Tonight I want 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. I’ll focus on China, where Xi Jinping wants a one-party state to reign supreme.

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.

All the rapidly expanding information available about a person is going to be consolidated in a centralized database to create a “social credit system.” Based on that data, 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 is not yet fully operational, but it’s clear where it’s heading. It will subordinate the fate of the individual to the interests of the one-party state in ways unprecedented in history.

I find the social credit system frightening and abhorrent. Unfortunately, some Chinese find it rather attractive because it provides information and services that aren’t currently available and can also protect law-abiding citizens against enemies of the state.

China isn’t the only authoritarian regime in the world, but it’s 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. But Xi isn’t alone. Authoritarian regimes are proliferating all over the world and if they succeed, they will become totalitarian.

As the founder of the Open Society Foundations, I’ve devoted my life to fighting totalizing, extremist ideologies, which falsely claim that the ends justify the means. I believe that the desire of people for freedom can’t be repressed forever. But I also recognize that open societies are profoundly endangered at present.

What I find particularly disturbing is that the instruments of control developed by artificial intelligence give an inherent advantage to authoritarian regimes over open societies. For them, instruments of control provide a useful tool; for open societies, they pose a mortal threat.

I use “open society” as shorthand for a society in which the rule of law prevails as opposed to rule by a single individual and where the role of the state is to protect human rights and individual freedom. In my personal view, an open society should pay special attention to those who suffer from discrimination or social exclusion and those who can’t defend themselves.

By contrast, authoritarian regimes use whatever instruments of control they possess to maintain themselves in power at the expense of those whom they exploit and suppress.

How can open societies be protected if these new technologies give authoritarian regimes a built-in advantage? That’s the question that preoccupies me. And it should also preoccupy all those who prefer to live in an open society.

Open societies need to regulate companies that produce instruments of control, while authoritarian regimes can declare them “national champions.” That’s what has enabled some Chinese state-owned companies to catch up with and even surpass the multinational giants.

This, of course, isn’t the only problem that should concern us today. For instance, man-made climate change threatens the very survival of our civilization. But the structural disadvantage that confronts open societies is a problem which has preoccupied me and I’d like to share with you my ideas on how to deal with it.

My deep concern for this issue arises out of my personal history. I was born in Hungary in 1930 and I’m Jewish. I was 13 years old when the Nazis occupied Hungary and started deporting Jews to extermination camps.

I was very fortunate because my father understood the nature of the Nazi regime and arranged false identity papers and hiding places for all members of his family, and for a number of other Jews as well. Most of us survived.

The year 1944 was the formative experience of my life. I learned at an early age how important it is what kind of political regime prevails. When the Nazi regime was replaced by Soviet occupation I left Hungary as soon as I could and found refuge in England.

At the London School of Economics I developed my conceptual framework under the influence of my mentor, Karl Popper. That framework proved to be unexpectedly useful when I found myself a job in the financial markets. The framework had nothing to do with finance, but it is based on critical thinking. This allowed me to analyze the deficiencies of the prevailing theories guiding institutional investors. I became a successful hedge fund manager and I prided myself on being the best paid critic in the world.

Running a hedge fund was very stressful. When I had made more money than I needed for myself or my family, I underwent a kind of midlife crisis. Why should I kill myself to make more money? I reflected long and hard on what I really cared about and in 1979 I set up the Open Society Fund. I defined its objectives as helping to open up closed societies, reducing the deficiencies of open societies and promoting critical thinking.

My first efforts were directed at undermining the apartheid system in South Africa. Then I turned my attention to opening up the Soviet system. I set up a joint venture with the Hungarian Academy of Science, which was under Communist control, but its representatives secretly sympathized with my efforts. This arrangement succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I got hooked on what I like to call “political philanthropy.” That was in 1984.

In the years that followed, I tried to replicate my success in Hungary and in other Communist countries. I did rather well in the Soviet empire, including the Soviet Union itself, but in China it was a different story.

My first effort in China looked rather promising. It involved an exchange of visits between Hungarian economists who were greatly admired in the Communist world, and a team from a newly established Chinese think tank which was eager to learn from the Hungarians.

Based on that initial success, I proposed to Chen Yizi, the leader of the think tank, to replicate the Hungarian model in China. Chen obtained the support of Premier Zhao Ziyang and his reform-minded policy secretary Bao Tong.

A joint venture called the China Fund was inaugurated in October 1986. It was an institution unlike any other in China. On paper, it had complete autonomy.

Bao Tong was its champion. But the opponents of radical reforms, who were numerous, banded together to attack him. They claimed that I was a CIA agent and asked the internal security agency to investigate. To protect himself, Zhao Ziyang replaced Chen Yizi with a high-ranking official in the external security police. The two organizations were co-equal and they couldn’t interfere in each other’s affairs.

I approved this change because I was annoyed with Chen Yizi for awarding too many grants to members of his own institute and I was unaware of the political infighting behind the scenes. But applicants to the China Fund soon noticed that the organization had come under the control of the political police and started to stay away. Nobody had the courage to explain to me the reason for it.

Eventually, a Chinese grantee visited me in New York and told me, at considerable risk to himself. Soon thereafter, Zhao Ziyang was removed from power and I used that excuse to close the foundation. This happened just before the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and it left a “black spot” on the record of the people associated with the foundation. They went to great length to clear their names and eventually they succeeded.

In retrospect, it’s clear that I made a mistake in trying to establish a foundation which operated in ways that were alien to people in China. At that time, giving a grant created a sense of mutual obligation between the donor and recipient and obliged both of them to remain loyal to each other forever.

So much for history. Let me now turn to the events that occurred in the last year, some of which surprised me.

When I first started going to China, I met many people in positions of power who were fervent believers in the principles of open society. In their youth they had been deported to the countryside to be re-educated, often suffering hardships far greater than mine in Hungary. But they survived and we had much in common. We had all been on the receiving end of a dictatorship.

They were eager to learn about Karl Popper’s thoughts on the open society. While they found the concept very appealing, their interpretation remained somewhat different from mine. They were familiar with Confucian tradition, but there was no tradition of voting in China. Their thinking remained hierarchical and carried a built-in respect for high office. I, on the other hand I was more egalitarian and wanted everyone to have a vote.

So, I wasn’t surprised when Xi Jinping ran into serious opposition at home; but I was surprised by the form it took. At last summer’s leadership convocation at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, Xi Jinping was apparently taken down a peg or two. Although there was no official communique, rumor had it that the convocation disapproved of the abolition of term limits and the cult of personality that Xi had built around himself.

It’s important to realize that such criticisms were only a warning to Xi about his excesses, but did not reverse the lifting of the two-term limit. Moreover, “The Thought of Xi Jinping,” which he promoted as his distillation of Communist theory was elevated to the same level as the “Thought of Chairman Mao.” So Xi remains the supreme leader, possibly for lifetime. The ultimate outcome of the current political infighting remains unresolved.

I’ve been concentrating on China, but open societies have many more enemies, Putin’s Russia foremost among them. And the most dangerous scenario is when these enemies conspire with, and learn from, each other on how to better oppress their people.

The question poses itself, what can we do to stop them?

The first step is to recognize the danger. That’s why I’m speaking out tonight. But now comes the difficult part. Those of us who want to preserve the open society must work together and form an effective alliance. We have a task that can’t be left to governments.

History has shown that even governments that want to protect individual freedom have many other interests and they also give precedence to the freedom of their own citizens over the freedom of the individual as a general principle.

My Open Society Foundations are dedicated to protecting human rights, especially for those who don’t have a government defending them. When we started four decades ago there were many governments which supported our efforts but their ranks have thinned out. The US and Europe were our strongest allies, but now they’re preoccupied with their own problems.

Therefore, I want to focus on what I consider the most important question for open societies: what will happen in China?

The question can be answered only by the Chinese people. All we can do is to draw a sharp distinction between them and Xi Jinping. Since Xi has declared his hostility to open society, the Chinese people remain our main source of hope.

And there are, in fact, grounds for hope. As some China experts have explained to me, there is a Confucian tradition, according to which advisors of the emperor are expected to speak out when they strongly disagree with one of his actions or decrees, even that may result in exile or execution.

This came as a great relief to me when I had been on the verge of despair. The committed defenders of open society in China, who are around my age, have mostly retired and their places have been taken by younger people who are dependent on Xi Jinping for promotion. But a new political elite has emerged that is willing to uphold the Confucian tradition. This means that Xi will continue to have a political opposition at home.

Xi presents China as a role model for other countries to emulate, but he’s facing criticism not only at home but also abroad. His Belt and Road Initiative has been in operation long enough to reveal its deficiencies.

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.

The iconic case is in Sri Lanka. China built a port that serves its strategic interests. It failed to attract sufficient commercial traffic to service the debt and enabled China to take possession of the port. There are several similar cases elsewhere and they’re causing widespread resentment.

Malaysia is leading the pushback. The previous government headed by Najib Razak sold out to China but in May 2018 Razak was voted out of office by a coalition led by Mahathir Mohamed. Mahathir immediately stopped several big infrastructure projects and is currently negotiating with China how much compensation Malaysia will still have to pay.

The situation is not as clear-cut in Pakistan, which has been the largest recipient of Chinese investments. The Pakistani army is fully beholden to China but the position of Imran Khan who became prime minister last August is more ambivalent. At the beginning of 2018, China and Pakistan announced grandiose plans in military cooperation. By the end of the year, Pakistan was in a deep financial crisis. But one thing became evident: China intends to use the Belt and Road Initiative for military purposes as well.

All these setbacks have forced Xi Jinping to modify his attitude toward the Belt and Road Initiative. In September, he announced that “vanity projects” will be shunned in favor of more carefully conceived initiatives and in October, the People’s Daily warned that projects should serve the interests of the recipient countries.

Customers are now forewarned and several of them, ranging from Sierra Leone to Ecuador, are questioning or renegotiating projects.

Most importantly, the US government has now identified China as a “strategic rival.” President Trump is notoriously unpredictable, but this decision was the result of a carefully prepared plan. Since then, the idiosyncratic behavior of Trump has been largely superseded by a China policy adopted by the agencies of the administration and overseen by Asian affairs advisor of the National Security Council Matt Pottinger and others. The policy was outlined in a seminal speech by Vice President Mike Pence on October 4th.

Even so, declaring China a strategic rival is too simplistic. China is an important global actor. An effective policy towards China can’t be reduced to a slogan.

It needs to be far more sophisticated, detailed and practical; and it must include an American economic response to the Belt and Road Initiative. The Pottinger plan doesn’t answer the question whether its ultimate goal is to level the playing field or to disengage from China altogether.

Xi Jinping fully understood the threat that the new US policy posed for his leadership. He gambled on a personal meeting with President Trump at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires. In the meantime, the danger of global trade war escalated and the stock market embarked on a serious sell-off in December. This created problems for Trump who had concentrated all his efforts on the 2018 midterm elections. When Trump and Xi met, both sides were eager for a deal. No wonder that they reached one, but it’s very inconclusive: a ninety-day truce.

In the meantime, there are clear indications that a broad based economic decline is in the making in China, which is affecting the rest of the world. A global slowdown is the last thing the market wants to see.

The unspoken social contract in China is built on steadily rising living standards. If the decline in the Chinese economy and stock market is severe enough, this social contract may be undermined and even the business community may turn against Xi Jinping. Such a downturn could also sound the death knell of the Belt and Road Initiative, because Xi may run out of resources to continue financing so many lossmaking investments.

On the question of global internet governance, there’s an undeclared struggle between the West and China. China wants to dictate rules and procedures that govern the digital economy by dominating the developing world with its new platforms and technologies. This is a threat to the freedom of the Internet and indirectly open society itself.

Last year I 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. My present view is that instead of waging a trade war with practically the whole world, the US should focus on China. Instead of letting ZTE and Huawei off lightly, it needs to crack down on them. If these companies came to dominate the 5G market, they would present an unacceptable security risk for the rest of the world.

Regrettably, President Trump seems to be following a different course: make concessions to China and declare victory while renewing his attacks on US allies. This is liable to undermine the US policy objective of curbing China’s abuses and excesses.

To conclude, let me summarize the message I’m delivering tonight. My key point is that the combination of repressive regimes with IT monopolies endows those regimes with a built-in advantage over open societies. The instruments of control are useful tools in the hands of authoritarian regimes, but they pose a mortal threat to open societies.

China is not the only authoritarian regime in the world but it is the wealthiest, strongest and technologically most advanced. This makes Xi Jinping the most dangerous opponent of open societies. That’s why it’s so important to distinguish Xi Jinping’s policies from the aspirations of the Chinese people. The social credit system, if it became operational, would give Xi total control over the people. Since Xi is the most dangerous enemy of the open society, we must pin our hopes on the Chinese people, and especially on the business community and a political elite willing to uphold the Confucian tradition.

This doesn’t mean that those of us who believe in the open society should remain passive. The reality is that we are in a Cold War that threatens to turn into a hot one. On the other hand, if Xi and Trump were no longer in power, an opportunity would present itself to develop greater cooperation between the two cyber-superpowers.

It is possible to dream of something similar to the United Nations Treaty that arose out of the Second World War. This would be the appropriate ending to the current cycle of conflict between the US and China. It would reestablish international cooperation and allow open societies to flourish. That sums up my message.

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31 comments

  1. vlade

    The really scary thing is not just that China does it to its own citizens in China. But it’s controlling its citizens even abroad, and, yet worse, it goes some way to intimidate non-citizen China critics (if they have good enough megaphone to be heard, at least where China can see it).

    Most recently I came across a story of a NZ academic who was resarching Chinese intimidation techniques, only to find itself on their sharp end herself.

    USSR and its block were doing this during the cold war (I know, members of my family went through it), but it was never so efficient as China can do now with the technology available.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      I assume you mean this article in the Guardian:

      I’m Being Watched

      I tend to be a little sceptical of some of the recent anti-China articles in the media, but I’ve heard quite a few stories consistent with this one – that China is not just engaged in intimidation of foreigners in China who are deemed to be threats, but are extending this to outside China.

      Reply
    2. Carlito Riego

      I am guessing you’re referring to this article: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/23/im-being-watched-anne-marie-brady-the-china-critic-living-in-fear-of-beijing.
      This is very very worrying. Macrobusiness (relayed by NC if I remember well) also covered the infiltration of Beijing in Australian politics.
      I previously worked on agribusiness in China (spent 6 years there between 2010-2016) and I was rather unsettled by the amount by which AUSNZ were being dependent on China for trade (several percentages of GDP). This obviously translate into a lot of political power for the Middle Kingdom. Food was used several times (salmon from Norway, wine from France, seafood from Australia) as a bargaining tool by China when the exporting countries were not behaving ‘harmoniously’.
      It’s a shame we have to confront China the same way we confronted/ing the Russian, these cultures have a lot to teach us and their people are wonderful.
      Will it take another Solzhenitsyn to bring down China ? Or is it too late because of IT ?

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        There is no serious possibility of the CCP losing its grip on power. They have delived for the Chinese people and there is no alternative power base, they’ve made sure of that – even the oligarchs of China are firmly within the system. Bar a complete collapse (say, in the hypothetical situation of a major financial panic/crisis causing the government to lose control) any change will be internal – i.e. reformists within the system. So it would be a Gorbachev, not a Solzhenitzyn who would bring change.

        However, given the huge emphasis within Chinese society to stability and harmony, I don’t think there is much real opposition to the sort of AI based oppression that might be resisted elsewhere.

        Reply
        1. vlade

          Not so entirely sure. The history of China (from what I know) is a history of stability that leads to complacency that leads to internal strife that leads to change in a dynasty. We’ve already seen in in a fast-play mode in 20th century. I’m not entirely sure where China is right now – and economically, it may be starting to run into troubles.

          Reply
          1. NotTimothyGeithner

            Complacency is the key word. To me, this is close to a “its better to be feared than loved.” Do rulers and their cronies before the fall believe they are beloved by the “silent majority”?

            The current Chinese rulers might by shifting towards totalitarian by their standards, but I don’t see complacency which is at least in my mind marked by a obsession with norms and celebration of false traditions.

            Reply
          2. PlutoniumKun

            Yes, its true that the big picture for Chinese history has been long periods of stability and growth interspersed with massive steps backwards. I’ve read it attributed to the geography of the country – the two big open floodplains make it a natural fit for a centralised water based authoritarian leadership as there are no natural internal defensive barriers, but these highly centralised societies tend to eventually collapse in on themselves.

            I’ve often wondered what a Chinese collapse would look like. My suspicion is that, like the old Soviet Union, you’d see lots of local regional leaders set up mini kingdoms based on existing provinces. Eventually the old process of one conquering the rest would be set in train. Presumably the winner would be the one with the foresight to grab the nukes first.

            Reply
        2. sanxi

          “There is no serious possibility of the CCP losing its grip on power.”. Reality dictates everything eventually changes, I am very wary of stating things in the ‘forever’ idiom. No disrespect to you, it’s the idea.

          Reply
          1. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

            Agree here. I lived in Soviet Union in 1990 and Syria in 2010 and we said the said thing.

            Reply
  2. Steve H.

    Informed speculation: imo the FAANG+Microsoft true business model is dark money from the surveillance state. Not just mapping social networks but experiments in manipulation, which is documented for Fcbk.

    Ad sales are just the beard. Bot’em up and make’em look great, skim some cash from suckers, but if it was based just on the market they’d crash-n-burn.

    A data point for me is my Chromebook, which is truly hair-trigger in jumping links. But it mostly does what I need, and is cheap due to what I view as being subsidized. A click-generating device.

    There is a counter-fact to this: if someone quit their ads and their sales tanked, that would be evidence the ads aren’t just hand-waving. But clicks are immaterial.

    Reply
    1. Ptb

      Yes, but this is true of a lot of tech that has only marginal profit potential or cost/benefit tradeoff on its own (e.g self driving cars – think about it). Wouldn’t surprise me if 1/3 or more of $ at the Pentagon is a big fund for tech (and fintech), beyond the usual lockheed/boeing/DARPA that is reported.

      To the extent that useful tech is created, that’s good. If too many skilled people are pulled away from civilian markets, e.g. huge portion of mathematicians hired to do crypto (and rest to finance), the may be an opportunity cost to society.

      Reply
    2. fajensen

      Similar funny-business with agriculture – In Denmark one can buy 1 kilo of pork steak for less than the price paid for 1 kilo of Haribo wine gums. Unlike like the pork which once lived, the wine gums are 100% synthetic and made on-demand in a mixing station!

      I speculate that this is possible because “Big-Ag” have other, hidden, sources of revenue (or loans that will never be paid back, why are you asking?), supporting what amounts to the dumping prices of Danish meat products.

      The thinking behind could be that if meat prices are low, inflation is low, then interest rates are low and then the 364 Billion DKK (or so) borrowed to Danish Agro-business can be serviced and then Finance is gets to Live (and government is happy because if inflation is low, the inflation linked social security benefits doesn’t have to be increased, and Finance will maybe be bailed out with “The Opposition” in power).

      Reply
  3. Ptb

    There’s a lot that bothers me here. Not that using machine learning / big data for surveillance and social control isn’t wrong or shouldn’t be criticized. Not that China doing it with great enthusiasm isn’t wrong or shouldn’t be criticized. But everything else.

    Soros, for all his philanthropy, isn’t the most effective diplomat. I’m not saying it’s his fault, but he failed to “save” Hungary from precisely the kind of politics he feared. That’s the single best place for him ro have influence – smaller country where grant $$ goes a longer way, speaks the language.

    He bought into and helped push forward the blunt Russophobia that really got prominent starting in 2014 and dominated the news in 2017. Russia now completely alienated, any actual reformers in Russia are set back by a decade or more. Also, by necessity,
    Russia now firmly allied with China. That this would be the consequence was completely obvious forever.

    Ok, good job so far.

    What will be next? The only way in which I can see any “promotion of open society” is that it forces a binary with-us-or-against-us choice for Chinese business elite, and prevents their integration into the global elite.

    On the western side we’ll just get more militarism, as any Soros allied progressives cozy up to the national security state.

    On the Chinese side, it’s not going to do squat. Maybe set them back 10 years in certain business areas. The power relationships internal to China won’t change.

    I don’t like it. I doubt think it’s “helpful”.

    Reply
    1. jsn

      My thought reading Soros was Open Society for whom? He seems to be against a “neoliberal empire of corporate surveillance with Chinese characteristics” because the defining Chinese characteristic is that the state sits above oligarchs like himself, whereas he is deferred to here by the state.

      He has very different problems from most (99.99%) of the rest of us and his Open Society still looks open to him.

      His is a good critique from the Davos perspective but, as is the rule from that perspective, really needs to re-think the role of government, and resulting from that the form and operational reality that government needs to take for Open Society to again be popularly meaningful.

      Reply
      1. ptb

        Yes, the hypocrisy factor is striking. But in my opinion, that’s just a function of the level of wealth, especially the group who is Soros’s audience (“Davos Man”).

        It is also a function of the US’s national power. Any values system in the hands of a powerful country will be applied in an inconsistent and self-serving way. The US is the most powerful, therefore the hypocrisy is the most obvious. The hypocrisy factor is no worse for Soros’s belief system than any other ideology you’ll find around here. It should, without a doubt, be called out as necessary, but I think we should also try to factor it out if the goal is to examine the underlying ideas.

        One thing that I think is good about his efforts – unlike most of those who opine on behalf of the business class – is that he takes a purposefully moral stance. This is a welcome contrast, I think, since the business-first types are mostly just as amoral as the Chinese state. So I’d acknowledge the effort at least.

        Soros seems to go back and forth between being dogmatically anti-collectivist, sometimes, and supporting government regulations, at other times. Figuring out how to synthesize those two is a righteous challenge. I can’t say I’m satisfied with how the synthesis comes out – for instance when the hypocrisies above aren’t given sufficient consideration, or when the reform efforts alienate large groups of people for no great reason – but thought process is going, vaguely, in the right direction.

        The Open Society concept is very malleable, it’s an interesting kind of ideological bridge. It can be used to present egalitarian ideas to the Davos crowd, and that’s great. It can also be used to push neoliberal ideas to “progressives”. Not so good, from where I stand. But I’m prob. halfway between a social democrat and a socialist, with anti-war as an overriding value, so take that as you will.

        Reply
  4. Carolinian

    Hate to be cynical but it’s just possible that when people like Soros talk about freedom they are really talking about power. Yves gets it right in the intro when she says that it was the successes rather than the failures of the Soviet Union that freaked out our own establishment as they faced not just an existential military rival–with an atomic arsenal no less–but also a rival economic system that could limit Western elites’ freedom to be powerful. This carries on to the present day as Soros pumps up the Chinese and Russian menace even as censorship and other threats to US freedom are gaining steam–the supposed foreign threat being used as an excuse. We should certainly be concerned about the Chinese “social credit” system but here in America we have long had the so called “credit score” to regulate economic life. And it was our “free” private enterprise that pioneered the spybot internet economy that Soros is so worried about. One can’t help but suspect that it’s not the spying but who’s doing it that really bothers him.

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  5. pjay

    Soros can be an eloquent spokesman for high ideals. I have read many of his writings over the years on philosophy, the dangers of unregulated capitalism, and, of course, the “open society.” Of course we all value “freedom” and “democracy.” Of course Soros is the bogey man for countless right-wing “conspiracy theorists.” And of course the idea of the Chinese “social credit system” as it is usually described is abhorrent to me (and of course we are building our own version, but that is another topic).

    But these days, I pay little attention to what powerful people *say*, and more to what they *do*. NC has published a number of excellent accounts of what happened to Russia when it was “opened” to the West. What was the role of CIA-connected “NGOs” like the NED or Freedom House in this process? What has been the role of such “democracy promotion” organizations in places like Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine, or wherever a “color revolution” erupts? Now the NED has its own Republican (IRI) and Democratic (NDI) spinoffs, and countless “democracy” and “humanitarian” organizations and movements have been funded all over the world that (1) employ many well-meaning people working for worthwhile goals; while simultaneously (2) providing cover US or other Western intelligence services to penetrate and manipulate the civil society of host nations. This is not some mysterious secret. It was discussed openly during the Reagan administration as a strategy to get around legal restrictions by “privatizing” what used to be covert CIA operations. However high-sounding and well-meaning they might be, these organizations are at the forefront of ‘hybrid warfare’ wherever it is waged. And wherever this occurs we find Soros’ Open Society Foundation. This is not right-wing fantasy.

    Soros is a smart guy. Is he just a well-meaning dupe whose organizations are infiltrated by nefarious intelligence agents? Of course Soros wants to “open” China, as does his audience. For what? That’s the first question that comes to my mind as I read these eloquent words.

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  6. Temporarily Sane

    The rise, and normalization, of overt and covert surveillance states in various countries around the world is certainly a serious issue that deserves attention. However, I am thoroughly sick and tired of westerners who actively or passively support the systems and institutions that have turned North America and Europe into post-democratic societies loudly pointing out the problems in nations the western establishment does not like.

    Hubris and a penchent for blatant double-standardism is the west’s Achilles heel. It’s like a family of sinister buffoons who constantly blow their own horn at top volume, and whine self-righteously about the neighbors, while making an utter mess of its own house and property and periodically running amok through the neighborhood, causing all kinds of problems for themselves and other residents. You just can’t take the embarrassingly tone-deaf moral preaching of these clowns seriously.

    Instead of complaining about things in countries they have no influence over (a more “local”, and no less ridiculous, version of this were the protests in Europe and Canada after Trump was elected) westerners who are ostensibly concerned about upholding human rights and civil liberties would do well to focus on countering the creeping surveillance state and burgeoning “soft totalitarianism” that is taking over their own societies.

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  7. Synoia

    There appears little difference in the results of China vs Facebook, Google et al in the US.

    Or the UK, with a gazillion, or more, cameras in the street, buses, and trains.

    The US has abrogated people “freedoms” frequently. The Indians, the Japanese in WW II, and people with convictions who have reformed, but now have “a record.”

    1984 was supposed to be a satire, or warning. It now appears as a prediction.

    One is either the product or the oppressed citizen.

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  8. Alain de Benoist

    This is an interesting triangular conflict with shifting alliances on each side.

    On one side you have Soros’ “open society” which really means nations open to globalist billionaires to latch onto and bleed white. The alt-right refers to this ideology as “globohomo” (globalized and homogenized culture pushed by billionaires, multinationals, NeoCons/Neo-liberals, along with their progressive pawns). The goal of globohomo is to weaken western societies so that they are ripe for manipulation by wealthy elites. The problem is that this ideology is working all too well as diverse, deracinated, and post-masculine Europe and the US are declining in global influence.

    On the Chinese side you have good old-fashioned collectivist ethno-nationalism. China is proudly a nation of Han Chinese and their culture and interests come first and foremost. They do not take many immigrants and non-Han cannot normally become citizens. Troublesome minorities are placed in re-education camps until they submit to the will of the Han. China is rising quickly in global power and this worries Soros as he has no way to poz them with globohomo, and in the near future the West will be so weakened by globohomo that China will rule the world, including over the globalist billionaires.

    On the dissident Western side you have individualist ethno-nationalism in the form of Trump, along with the original rebels to globohomo in Poland and Hungary. These have been joined by Italy and Brazil among other examples. Individualist ethno-nationalism is what most Western countries were until the billionaires rebelled and launched the globohomo assault on the west forty years ago.

    In Soros’ piece he is really saying he pozzed the Soviet Union with elements globohomo in order to open it up to rule by globalist billionaires. This process was stopped by Putin. China saw this and took measures to stop the same thing happening to China. So Soros now quite wisely wants to sick Trump and company against China. This is a very intelligent strategy, let the two ethnocentric camps fight it out and then let victorious globlohomo write the history books afterwards.

    In this triangular conflict China of course wants to encourage the West to commit suicide by overdosing on globohomo. Their basic strategy is: globohomo for thee but certainly not for me. But surely the Chinese can’t help but take a little pride in realizing that Trump is basically adopting their civilization model. Trump’s unspoken goal of maintaining a long term white majority in the US uses as a model Singapore’s continuing efforts to maintain a Han Chinese majority through controlling immigration.

    Trump on the other hand has to carefully balance the need to stop Chinese economic exploitation of the US (done with the full collaboration of globohomo) but at the same time Trump has to stop short of getting drawn into a military conflict with China. Back in WW2 there was a similar triangular conflict between the Yanks, the Nazis, and the Commies. The Nazis and Commies foolishly fought it out and the Yanks wisely came in a picked up the pieces.

    Of course this is exactly what Soros wants to have happen, a conflict between the two ethno-nationalist ideologies after which he and his fellow globalist billionaires can pick up the pieces. So Soros is open to assisting Trump in combating the Chinese on the economic front hoping that Trump will assist him in pushing regime change on China so that the current ethno-nationalist Chinese regime can be replaced by one open to globohomo.

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  9. Craig H.

    Soros is the enemy of facebook; Russia is the enemy of Soros; facebook is the enemy of Russia.

    (facebook is paper and Soros is scissors and Russia is the rock.)

    The thing all these guys leave out is it is a game and the game is RIGGED. Pass interference is against the rules but if you are paying off the refs or pleasuring the refs or you have the refs’ dog hostage they ain’t throwin’ that flag.

    Everybody knows the dice are loaded

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  10. Summer

    From the view from California, one would never suspect there was any issue with China. Doesn’t look like one at all from here.

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  11. False Solace

    Very interesting, I don’t follow Soros all that closely so I found this interesting as possible insight into the mind of a politically-connected billionaire.

    Some assumptions / beliefs expressed in the speech:

    1) Soros believes that technology leadership is indistinguishable from surveillance. According to Soros, surveillance regimes will promote their technology companies while open regimes will regulate them. Therefore, surveillance regimes will dominate technology. This seems like a remarkably limited view of what technology can accomplish. I don’t see any reason surveillance would grant a competitive technological advantage of any kind. In fact I would tend to expect the reverse, since a society where people live in fear is a society in which people fear to exchange new ideas.

    2) “My key point is that the combination of repressive regimes with IT monopolies endows those regimes with a built-in advantage”. Soros believes monopolies are an advantage in IT. This contrasts with my observation that monopolies view innovations as threats and kill them. I would imagine that stagnating technology would tend to put one at a disadvantage. To have breakthroughs and improvements you have to get rid of monopolies. The internet was not possible until AT&T was dismantled, which allowed existing innovations to flourish. The web browser was an end run around the Microsoft dominated OS — and it wouldn’t have taken off if the DOJ hadn’t sued Microsoft into submission.

    3) Soros seems to believe that China’s social credit scheme is unique to China. My opinion is that China’s social credit is a version of systems already in place in the West. Ours are slightly more fragmented and owned by corporations but they’re leveraged by the state whenever the state has need of them. Google works hand in glove with the CIA. There really isn’t that much of a difference. But fear that surveillance provides an advantage (a belief held by Soros) will lead the West into even closer integration of private surveillance with state agencies.

    4) The West doesn’t meet Soros’ definition of an open society because the West doesn’t follow the rule of law. The West doesn’t follow the rule of one man, either. It follows the rule of many men who all agree they are above the law. Soros benefits from this system himself and hasn’t tried to change it, so what exactly is he is trying to champion? His open society is something other than what he says it is.

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  12. Ook

    It’s been said before that the social score is nothing more than a slightly improved version of the credit score, which was pioneered in the land of freedom, as were all the surveillance techniques that the old hypocrite is whining about.
    He seems upset that the west might lose its advantage here more than anything else

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  13. Norb

    Soros seems upset that a bunch of socialists and commies are beating him at his own game. God forbid that they gain an upper hand and figure out a way to provide goods and services to most of humanity.

    If one has food, healthcare, housing, education, religion, and security- the definition of “Authoritarian” would seem irrelevant.

    What good is a free and open society if many are pushed into poverty or live in misery and agitation.

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  14. stevelaudig

    Those who presently rule/govern the PRC are ideologically totalitarians who recognize no limit to their authority. Their favorite Western judicial ‘scholar’ was also Dolphy’s favorite, Carl Schmitt. The metaphor or illustration is an anaconda and its prey. The anaconda, if I understand its technique, squeezes when the prey exhales so that after a long enough time the prey is no longer able to inhale. This is the Xi Jinping’s approach to slowly, or not so slowly, squeeze the individual freedom out… enslavement is the goal and this ‘gang of totalitarians’ [who are also motivated by racialist ideas of Han-supremacy] is out to rule. Its present weapon is the transfer of value squeezed out of the Chinese worker and move it overseas in creating a Eurasian “interstate highway” which will carry goods or troops. There is no organisation of any size or importance or activity in the PRC which is not, sooner or later, a government organization. To view, even slightly, large corporations as “independent” from the government is error. If an individual or an organization becomes “powerful” it will be ‘anaconda’ed’. Chabuduo, the Han cultural practice of doing things in a half-assed way offers some hope for resistance to. It is wise for the West to cut off technology transfers as it is in the nature of totalitarians to be uninventive and unoriginal. I recognize some gaps and blemishes in this argument but it’s just a comment. Cheers.

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