The billionaire financier Mike Bloomberg was forced to apologise to hundreds of guests at a major Asian business event in Singapore this week after complaints about a speech by Boris Johnson that robustly criticised China.
The former UK prime minister, the after-dinner speaker at the flagship Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore on Tuesday, was said to have described China as a “coercive autocracy” to about 500 Asian businesspeople, investors and diplomats.
While his comments would not be regarded as controversial in the UK, where there is concern over Beijing’s human rights record, approach to Taiwan and closeness to Russia, the majority of Asian countries are much more favourably inclined towards China and share strong economic and diplomatic ties.
In remarks that may alarm Rishi Sunak’s government and bolster his own support among Conservative MPs, Johnson is also said to have announced that he was taking a “temporary hiatus” from the frontline of British politics, suggesting he still harbours ambitions of returning to power.
Bloomberg, who invited Johnson and whose organisation was hosting the event in partnership with the Singapore government, acknowledged at the conference on Thursday that some attendees may have been “insulted or offended” by Johnson’s remarks.
But the businessman, a former mayor of New York and friend of Johnson, clarified that they were “his thoughts and his thoughts alone”. He added: “To those of you who were upset and concerned by what the speaker said, you have my apologies.”
Johnson’s remarks came the evening before Sunak was due to hold a surprise meeting with Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali. The talks were cancelled, but would have made him the first UK prime minister to meet the Chinese premier in person for almost five years.
Downing Street had said Sunak wanted to recalibrate the UK’s relationship with Beijing by trying to have a new “frank and constructive” dialogue. But it was interpreted by wary Tory hawks as a thawing of relations between Britain and the Asian superpower, after Liz Truss’s more overtly hostile approach.
According to the former prime minister’s spokesperson, he told the audience: “Let’s look at Russia and China. The two former communist tyrannies in which power has once again been concentrated in the hands of a single ruler. Two monocultural states that have been traditionally hostile to immigration and that are becoming increasingly nationalist in their attitudes.
“Two permanent UN security council members that back each other up and enable each other and which are willing to show a candid disregard for the rule of international law, and two countries that in the last year have demonstrated the immense limitations of their political systems by the disastrous mistakes they have made.”
One guest at the Singapore dinner told the Guardian: “Boris was typically funny and charming but he was also pretty belligerent in his criticism of a bunch of foreign governments, especially China and Russia, which he described as coercive autocracies. In Britain it would have been absolutely fine to single out China. But in Asia it wasn’t.”
Another added: “Boris was very, very critical. The speech was pretty shocking. People clearly people felt uncomfortable. He used very undiplomatic language about China, at a conference in Asia. A former British foreign secretary and prime minister should have known better.”
The response from attendees at the dinner in the five-star Fullerton Bay hotel, believed to include some Chinese businesspeople, prompted Bloomberg to apologise in person. He told the conference: “Some may have been insulted or offended last night by parts of the speaker’s remarks referencing certain countries and their duly elected leaders.
“Those were his thoughts and his thoughts alone, not cleared in advance by anyone nor shared with me personally. Bloomberg and NEF’s forums are a diverse group of views, and the presentation was meant as after-dinner entertainment rather than serious discussion of important controversial and complex issues.
“And I’m sure you know based on many years of interaction with us that our respect for all points of view and those that serve in government is complete and heartfelt. To those of you who were upset and concerned by what the speaker said, you have my apologies.
“And if you weren’t upset, perhaps you’ve enjoyed Boris Johnson – he is who he is, … he’s very controversial but also very entertaining. He was trying to be amusing rather than informative and serious, and I think we need to give him a little bit of credit for that.”
A spokesman for the former prime minister said: “Mr Johnson is robust in his criticism of authoritarianism and autocracy – including in Russia and China – and will continue to be so. He will continue to make the case for freedom and democracy on the world stage”.
A spokesperson for Bloomberg declined to comment.
Since he was ousted as prime minister, Johnson has been topping up his MP’s earnings by touring the world for a string of lucrative speaking engagements. The latest MPs’ register of interests shows he was paid £276,130 plus expenses for a speech to insurance agents in the US. His latest trip to Singapore took place while the House of Commons was sitting, though he was back for Thursday’s budget.
Johnson’s political career has been peppered with a string of damaging diplomatic gaffes. In 2013, he suggested that a rise in the number of Malaysian women attending university was down to their desire to find a husband. Two years later, he claimed the “part-Kenyan” US president Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike” of the UK, prompting an international outcry.
In January 2017, the then foreign secretary was caught on camera reciting a colonial-era poem by Rudyard Kipling in front of local dignitaries while on an official trip to Myanmar. Johnson, who was accused of “incredible insensitivity”, had been inside a sacred Buddhist temple at the time.
Later that year, he was criticised for making incorrect statement that the jailed British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been “teaching people journalism” rather than being on holiday in Iran. His comments were later cited as proof by Iran that she was engaged in “propaganda against the regime”.