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Why Wall Street titan Steve Schwarzman invested $100 million in US-China relations

The rhetoric of today's political world has caught the attention of many on Wall Street — perhaps no one more so than Blackstone's billionaire CEO Steve Schwarzman.

Unlike many of his banking peers, though, taxes aren't top of his mind. Instead, what has alarmed him for the better part of the last decade has been what he sees as a troubling rise of populism in the U.S. and around the world.

"[W]ith populism, no matter who you attack, your own circumstance doesn't really change, so you keep looking for new targets," Schwarzman tells CNBC. "My instinct was at some point different countries in the world were going to find China."

President Donald Trump spent much of his campaign targeting China. The animosity, which the Wall Street titan saw fueling the possibility of a U.S.-China war, led him to double down on his new immersive scholarship program, Schwarzman Scholars, which he funded with a $100 million donation.

Steve Schwarzman, founding trustee of Schwarzman Scholars, delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the program at Tsinghua University in Beijing on Sept. 10, 2016.
Nicolas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Images
Steve Schwarzman, founding trustee of Schwarzman Scholars, delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the program at Tsinghua University in Beijing on Sept. 10, 2016.

"I thought it was inevitable that China would be on that list of groups to be angry at," he says. "They've been a huge winner through globalization. Jobs have moved around the world, but to Asia, in particular in China, as the largest beneficiary."

The program, which launched last year, brought 110 students from around the globe to Beijing's elite Tsinghua University for the opportunity to learn more about international leadership. Accepting just 3.7 percent of the nearly 3,000 applicants, the program boasts an acceptance rate that was more selective than Ivy League schools. The hope is that by focusing their efforts on applicants most likely to be future leaders in their respective countries, even a small program might be able to impact relations between nations.

CNBC's upcoming documentary on the subject, "A Billionaire's Bet: The Best & Brightest," which airs Sunday, June 25 at 10 p.m. ET, profiles a small group of the chosen scholars as they embarked on the one-year program at a fascinating and precarious time in U.S.-China relations.

To communicate the seriousness of improving U.S.-China relations, Schwarzman often points to Harvard professor Graham Allison's analysis on the possibility of a war with China — a conclusion based on analyzing 500 years of history and finding that bloodshed was the result in 12 out of 16 past situations where a rising country has challenged a long-established power.

"I worry about a situation that could get out of control, particularly with weapons in the modern world," he said. "So I looked at that, and I said, 'What can I do as a person to try and lower the temperature and avoid extreme outcomes?'"

By its launch last September, the program's endowment had swelled to $435 million, securing contributions from more than 70 international corporations, and had gained the support of advisors such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

A general view of the Schwarzman Scholars official convocation on September 10, 2016 at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.
Getty Images |
A general view of the Schwarzman Scholars official convocation on September 10, 2016 at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.

It's worth noting China and its investors represent an area of focus for Blackstone. The company received $3 billion from China in 2007 for a 10 percent stake in the company that had $368 billion under management as of the end of March. Still, Schwarzman insists the program is in no way a Blackstone project.

"I've been in rooms when Chinese leaders discuss some of these issues and I see their anger in return," he said.

As the inaugural class of Schwarzman Scholars prepares to walk across the stage at graduation in July, he hopes the program and its future classes continue to do its part to foster a greater understanding to be "sure that we have a much more reasonable dialogue than just anger."

Video by CNBC's Qin Chen

Watch: "A Billionaire's Bet: The Best and the Brightest," on CNBC on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT about the Schwarzman Scholars program in Beijing aimed at grooming future leaders.