US financier and philanthropist George Soros on Thursday pledged $1 billion for a new university network project to battle the erosion of civil society in a world increasingly ruled by “would-be and actual dictators” and beset by climate change.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum 2020 here, Soros said humanity was at a turning point and the coming years would determine the fate of rulers like US President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping, as well as the world itself.
“We live at a transformational moment in history. The survival of open societies is endangered and we face an even greater crisis: Climate change,” said the Hungarian-born billionaire.
He described the plan of the Open Society University Network (OSUN) as “the most important project of my life” and said it would be an international platform for teaching and research that existing universities all over the world would be able to join.
“As a long-term strategy our best hope lies in access to quality education, specifically an education that reinforces the autonomy of the individual by cultivating critical thinking and emphasising academic freedom,” Soros said.
The OSUN will be launched through a partnership of the Soros-backed Central European University (CEU) and Bard College. Soros, whose CEU was forced to shift out of Hungary after pressure from the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, said the project was needed at a time when open society was at more risk than ever.
The network would seek to reach out to “places in need of high-quality education and in serving neglected populations” such as refugees, prisoners, the Roma and other displaced peoples like the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, he said. “To demonstrate our commitment to OSUN, we are contributing $1 billion to it,” said Soros in his traditional annual Davos address.
He expressed grief that the world’s strongest powers — the United States, China and Russia — were “in the hands of would-be or actual dictators and the ranks of authoritarian rulers continued to grow”.
With nationalism making further headway around the world, Soros said that the “biggest and most frightening setback” was in India, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “creating a Hindu nationalist state”.
He described the US leader as a “conman and the ultimate narcissist” but said the current surge in economic strength for the US might have come too soon for the US leader as he faces re-election later this year.
“Trump... has managed to overheat an already buoyant economy. An overheated economy can’t be kept at boiling point for too long,” warned Soros, credited with correctly predicting major market swings in his career as an investor.
“If all this happened close to the election it would have assured his election. His problem is that the election is still 10 months away and, in a revolutionary situation, that’s a lifetime.”
However, Soros also expressed particular alarm over Xi, who he said had broken with Communist Party tradition by concentrating power around himself, with the Chinese economy losing its previous flexibility.
By contrast, Xi is eager to exploit Trump's weaknesses and use artificial intelligence to achieve total control over his people, he claimed.
Soros, however, said Xi's success is far from assured. “One of China’s vulnerabilities is that it still depends on the US to supply it with the microprocessors it needs to dominate the 5G market and to fully implement the social credit system that is a threat to open societies,” he said.
"Since Xi Jinping has centralised power in his hands, China's economic policy has also lost its flexibility and inventiveness," Soros said. To make matters worse for Xi, the Trump administration has developed a comprehensive and bipartisan policy towards China, which has declared that China is a strategic rival, he added.
Soros further claimed Trump didn't have a strategic plan when he authorised the launching of a missile that killed the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Suleimani, and an Iraqi pro-Iranian militia commander. But Trump has an unfailing instinct that tells him how his faithful followers would respond to his actions, he said.
Soros announced that he was creating a new university network to better prepare students for current and future global challenges.
He said he is endowing the network with US$1 billion and asking other philanthropists to contribute. The network, which will operate throughout the world, has been named the Open Society University Network (OSUN). It will integrate teaching and research across higher education institutions worldwide.