Stephen K. Bannon, U.S President Donald Trump’s former chief political strategist, is famous for his general hard line on China. Days before he left his post in August, he made sensational remarks including stating that the United States is “at economic war with China.” Surprisingly, he seems to have changed tone during his recent trip to Hong Kong.
On September 12, Bannon made his first big post-White house speech on “American economic nationalism and the populist revolt and Asia” at an investor conference in a luxury Hong Kong hotel. Although the conference organizer CLSA — a unit of Citic Securities, China’s largest state-owned brokerage — refused to disclose whether it had paid Bannon for his appearance, it’s widely assumed that such event-organizers would pay a large speaking fee to such a high-profile former foreign official. For example, former U.S. President Bill Clinton made $550,000 for one speech to a business forum in Shanghai, China in 2011.
CLSA initially said Bannon’s speech would be open to some print media, but decided to close the session a day later. Despite that, multiple people who listened to the speech revealed what Bannon said.
In August, Bannon said in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with the American Prospect: “We’re at economic war with China… To me, the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”
Perhaps in an attempt to placate his hosts, Bannon significantly softened his tone while in Hong Kong. Bannon revised his wording, saying instead that the United States is at economic war with other “mercantilist states” like Japan, South Korea and China. According to the South China Morning Post, he claimed that “I believe we can avoid a trade war, which is detrimental to both countries. We have to somehow reach an agreement.”
Bannon even praised Chinese president Xi Jinping as well as China’s way of governing:
Xi is very impressive. He really understands what’s in the best interests of his people. He is very smart, very tough but fair. He is direct and to the point – just like President Trump. That is why they like each other so much.
According to Wei Du, a correspondent at Channel News Asia, Bannon also said: “Chinese way of running their economic system is quite brilliant. I tip my hat to them… there isn’t a world leader Trump respects more than the president of China. ”