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Bloomberg moves business forum from Beijing to Singapore

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Some experts think that moving the conference to Singapore could benefit the event. The strengthening of authoritarianism in China poses a quandary for Westerners who want to engage with China.

Washington

FALLOUT from the trade war between the United States and China has prompted Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media executive and former mayor of New York City, to relocate what was planned as a conference of global business and political leaders in Beijing.

Organisers in New York are moving the event to Singapore, where it is to take place over two days in the first week of November. According to people with knowledge of the planning, Mr Bloomberg made the decision after a Chinese partner asked organisers last week to postpone the event, which was to rival Davos, the elite annual conclave in Switzerland.

The partner told organisers that President Xi Jinping and other leaders in China want to spotlight an import expo in Shanghai to bolster international interest in trade with the country.

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The move highlights the difficulty of conducting business - or diplomacy - in China, both because of rising tensions with the United States and because of an accelerating move towards hard authoritarianism under Mr Xi. The relationship between Washington and Beijing has become increasingly fraught because of the trade war started by President Donald Trump over the summer, and Chinese officials are more likely to question US-led events in China, even those that aim to bring business leaders there.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mr Trump said on Twitter that the trade dispute would be "resolved in time" by him and "China's great President Xi Jinping". "Their relationship and bond remain very strong," he said, continuing to refer to himself in the third person.

The Shanghai event, announced by Mr Xi last year, has taken on new significance for Chinese leaders because of the trade war, which has lasted much longer than they had anticipated, the people said.

Officials are aiming to use the expo to send a positive message about trade to other nations. As a result, they are reluctant to allow other events that could compete with it.

The Chinese partner for the summit meeting, called the New Economy Forum, intended for Beijing, asked organisers to postpone the event, even though it was supposed to highlight China's growing dominance in the global economy. Invitations had been sent to 400 business and political figures, 300 of them from outside China.

The involvement of so many prominent people and companies who for years maintained strong ties with China makes the decision to move the event surprising.

Chairmen of the conference's advisory board include Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state and national security adviser, and Henry Paulson Jr, the former Treasury secretary, both of whom occasionally meet with Chinese leaders and preach engagement with China. Among the international corporate partners are ExxonMobil, HSBC and SoftBank Group, based in Japan.

The Chinese partner, the China Centre for Economic International Exchanges, is a research centre based in Beijing that is led by Zeng Peiyan, a former vice-premier. Its mission, according to the centre's website, includes "promoting exchanges and cooperation" and "to improve China's soft power". The group did not respond to phone calls and e-mail seeking comment.

Its request last week came as a blow to Mr Bloomberg, who wants to engage with China on issues such as trade and climate change.

Organisers scrambled to find another site, and prominent Singaporeans agreed to host, the people familiar with planning said. The Chinese centre is still expected to send some participants, but there will now be less of a focus on China, and programmers are scrambling to line up speakers after some dropped out, the people said.

"I think it's clearer that the increasing tensions in the US-China relationship are having an impact on everything," said Scott Mulhauser, the former chief of staff to Max Baucus, an ambassador to China under the Obama administration, and founder of Aperture Strategies, a public relations firm.

"I think Bloomberg navigated this one impressively. It's not clear that everyone can." The strengthening of authoritarianism in China poses a quandary for Westerners who want to engage with the country but also say that they champion liberal thought and freedoms, as Mr Bloomberg does.

In that context, some experts say, the move to Singapore could benefit the event.

"It's almost impossible to do anything in China that's meaningful," said Orville Schell, the director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, who has organised events in China. "As much as we see a need to have frank and honest discussions, it's almost impossible to confect such a thing in China. In my opinion, Singapore is a much better choice." NYTIMES