In Conversation with George Soros at HKU: Bubbles, Big Business and Regulatory Bodies

George Soros at HKUInternational financier and philanthropist George Soros engaged in a public discourse at the University of Hong Kong on Feb 3.

The free event, A Conversation with George Soros, featured a panel discussion followed by a Q&A with the audience. Doug Meigs reports.

Responding to queries on a multitude of subjects, Soros touted the benefits of a more open China, called for a global regulatory body of financial markets, and shared his concern that worsening Sino-US relations could inhibit global prosperity. He also noted China’s rapid growth despite the global financial meltdown of 2008.

“China was in fact the best situated of all countries to deal with the financial crisis, but it had the resources for stimulating the economy, and therefore it has been the first (to recover) and the one who recovered from it the strongest. The relative position of China is rising in a stronger way than (any nation) can easily adjust to, and that actually is one the problems that we are currently confronting.”

More than 800 spectators packed Loke Yew Hall to full capacity, while overflow attendance spilled into two live-feed rooms. Richard Wong, HKU Vice Chancellor and Provost, moderated the “conversation.” The Journalism and Media Studies Centre and the School of Economics and Finance co-presented the event; local Cable TV broadcast it live and the JMSC streamed a webcast on Ustream and Livestream.

The event built upon Soros’ last “appearance” at HKU, which occurred via telecast on October 30, 2009. Soros was lecturing from the Central European University in Budapest. The previous event featured the final installment from a five-part lecture series titled Open Society, the Financial Crisis and the Way Ahead.

The HKU telecast focused on China’s increasingly important role on the world stage. A conversation began between the man and the campus.

“Today the dialogue continues,” said Wong, the conversation moderator. “And we will explore further Mr. Soros’ philosophy and the theoretical implications for China and the world.”

He last visited the campus in person in 2001, when he participated in a half-day JMSC seminar on the topic of technology, philanthropy and civil society.

Soros is the chairman of Soros Fund Management, the founder of the Open Society Institute and author of 10 books. Born in Budapest in 1930, he survived Nazi occupation to study at the London School of Economics. He migrated to the United States where he became involved in early hedge funds.

Although Soros is famously wealthy (the 29th richest man in the world), the investment guru has achieved similar acclaim for his philanthropy. Soros has given US$7 billion away personally through the Open Society Institute. The institute promotes democracy, human rights, free expression and economic reform in approximately 70 countries around the globe.

Soros sat on stage with Wong and three experts on China and finance. The panelists included: Chenggang Xu, a HKU professor of economics and consultant to international banks and the IMF and World Bank), Robyn Meredith, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Elephant and the Dragon, and Jeffrey Timmermans: JMSC lecturer and former managing editor of Dow Jones Newswires.

Timmermans asked how Soros thought financial media reinforces and/or corrects speculative bubbles. Soros replied that financial media accomplishes both, but said the role is ultimately positive.

“The good thing about media is that they are equally available to all, so whatever they say, everyone else can hear. They are neither more wise, nor more stupid, than the rest of us.”

Soros said Sino-US diplomacy is essential for both countries. His previous telecast engagement at HKU occurred prior to US President Barack Obama’s visit to China. During the previous lecture, Soros had lauded Obama’s efforts to strengthen diplomacy with China. However, he lamented that relations appear to have worsened since the president’s diplomatic trip in November.

A Masters of Journalism student from China, Natalie Wong, asked how the US sale of weapons to Taiwan could affect American and Chinese economies. Soros said that he doesn’t expect any grave impact, but it is a step in the wrong direction.

Professor Ying Chan, Director of JMSC, said she had hoped Soros could continue the conversation he began with HKU in October. His recent visit fulfilled this wish.

“It’s good that the HKU community can understand him better, not just how he makes money, but how he gives money,” Chan said. “He recognizes the importance of China and the role that China will play in world affairs. He’s betting his money on China.”

Seats for A Conversation with George Soros became available to the public on January 19, and was full by the following day, leaving event organisers to begin a waiting list. Kylie Chan, the JMSC event organiser, described the public response as “phenomenal.”

“There was a lot of interest from all categories of people, from the business and financial world, to scholars, students and the general public,” she said.

To hear an edited version of George Soros’ responses click on play below.

A Conversation with George Soros at HKU from JMSC HKU on Vimeo.