Over the past several years, Beijing has systematically positioned Chinese nationals at the head of a wide range of U.N. agencies. Since 2019, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency has been led by Qu Dongyu, formerly China’s vice minister of agriculture. This followed the 2018 reinstatement of Zhao Houlin, who began his career in China’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, for a second four-year term as the secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, a crucial body that sets technical standards for communications networks; Zhao has used his position to advance Huawei’s standing as a vendor of 5G telecommunications equipment worldwide. The previous year, the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Liu Zhenmin, formerly China’s vice-minister for foreign affairs, to a key position in the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs – a body tasked with advancing the U.N.’s hallmark program to promote development, combat climate change and reduce inequality. Even the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N. agency that regulates global air travel and is headed by Fang Liu, a Chinese national, has been accused of keeping Taiwan out of the loop on Covid-19 protocols.
In part this dominance of Chinese nationals in key U.N. agencies reflects Beijing’s savvy diplomatic maneuvering as a rising power, and its position as the world’s 2nd largest economy.
But it’s also possible because of a void left by the United States, which under Trump has repudiated its previous leadership role in international organizations. As Beijing tries to retool the U.N. and other international institutions to its advantage, it is leaving in its wake a global system that has been knocked off balance absent the steadying leadership of the United States. Even amid a global pandemic, Washington continues to send equivocal signals about its commitment to multilateralism.
In this context, Trump’s decision to defund WHO isn’t just petty or reactive – it literally plays into China’s hands. If the U.S. downgrades its participation in the WHO and other U.N. organizations, it will cede even more ground, and influence, to the Chinese – which is what they want.
So Americans who are now blaming the WHO for failing to do a better job against Covid-19 have an important question to answer – if you want international organizations to perform to U.S. standards and reflect U.S. values, how much global leadership are you ready to take back on?
China’s gambit to leverage Covid-19 to consolidate its international standing need not go unchallenged. Indeed, as the pandemic lays waste to all assumptions of how the U.N. should work, there may not be a better window of opportunity for Washington to double down on its commitment to a brand of global leadership that is committed to transparency, freedom, and the protection of universal human rights.
That is, if the president is willing to make an about-face.
At the height of the Cold War in 1974, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping stood before the United Nations General Assembly and denounced the United States’ “vain [pursuit] of world hegemony.” Superpowers like the United States, he warned, were exerting too much influence over the United Nations and other international bodies, and he cautioned against the establishment of “spheres of influence by any country.”
More than 40 years later, China has explicitly decided to do exactly the same thing it accused the United States of doing then.
In an October 2017 speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress, Xi Jinping outlined his vision for “taking an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system.” Though he spoke only in broad brush strokes of democratizing international relations and setting developing countries on equal footing in the global governance system, China-watchers understood it as a pivot that had been years in the making.
In the years since, Beijing has moved expeditiously to impose its illiberal values on international organizations. Through a combination of deft coalition-building, strategically timed financial contributions, and narrative-shaping efforts, Beijing has made progress in transforming the U.N. into a platform for its foreign policy agenda, including advancing China’s economic interests, stifling dissent and democracy, and hollowing out the rules-based order.
These efforts can be seen across nearly all corners of the organization. Beyond its leadership in specific agencies as diverse as the International Telecommunication Union and the Food and Agriculture Agency, China is also rewiring the U.N.’s signature multilateral initiatives to advance its narrow aims – both economic and political. It is challenging what it perceives as a pro-Western status quo in international institutions and replacing it with new norms that (under the guise of improving technology) create more tolerance of government surveillance and censorship. And it is using Xi Jinping’s signature “Belt and Road Initiative,” a Chinese effort to promote global infrastructure development, as a panacea for promoting sustainable development (even as it generates business for Chinese firms and spreads Chinese political influence across the developing world).
In the U.N. Development Program last year, China launched what it called the Belt and Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition, which purportedly seeks to develop standards, know-how, and best practices around environmental protections to “ensure that the Belt and Road brings long-term green and sustainable development to all concerned countries.” This is a clever bit of PR jujitsu, since Belt and Road projects have garnered substantial criticism for their disregard of environmental protections. More broadly, China has coopted the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals as a vehicle for advancing Xi Jinping’s marquee Belt and Road economic strategy; U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking at the 2019 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, celebrated the “alignment of the Belt and Road Initiative with the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Beijing is even leveraging its tech champions in its bid to rebrand global governance. The U.N. recently announced that it was partnering with China’s largest surveillance software company, Tencent, to conduct video conferences and other online communications connected to the organization’s 75th-anniversary celebrations in September. Back in 2018, the U.N. Development Program also launched a partnership with Tencent to tackle environmental and urban challenges in developing countries through digital platforms that connect local government bodies to entrepreneurs.
And as Chinese technology proliferates across the reaches of the organization, China has joined hands with Russia to institutionalize international norms around surveillance and censorship, including through the passage of a joint U.N. cybercrime resolution in November 2019 that equips authoritarian governments with broad-based authority to repress and censor political dissent online.
In all these ways, China is successfully chipping away at liberal democratic norms governing the free flow of information and seeking to create a global information environment that is conducive to its state propaganda and information controls.
After years of laying the groundwork, it’s little wonder that Beijing has been able to turn coronavirus from an embarrassment into an opportunity to expand its influence in the U.N. Despite its early denial of human-to-human transmissibility of the virus and blocking WHO experts from entering the country, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has since repeatedly praised the Chinese government for its response to the outbreak. (Perhaps ironically, despite much reporting of the Trump administration’s missteps in the early stages of the pandemic, Tedros has also not criticized the U.S. response.)
To be sure, Tedros probably didn’t want to alienate Chinese leaders at a time he needed access for WHO investigators to go to Wuhan. But for strapped U.N agencies, funding and influence go hand-in-hand. In March, just weeks before Trump began talking about curbing funding to the agency, China announced a $20 million donation to the WHO to fight Covid-19.
But China’s influence in the WHO started well before the pandemic. Back in 2017, Tedros touted the Belt and Road’s role in advancing access to high-quality healthcare and parroted Beijing’s call for the creation of a “Health Silk Road” to promote China’s healthcare model in Belt and Road countries. This was just months after representatives from Tedros’ home country, Ethiopia, attended China’s first Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, marking the culmination of years of heavy Chinese investment into Ethiopia. China is now advancing its Health Silk Road to assert global leadership, conducting diplomatic overtures to leaders across Europe, Latin America, Africa as it deploys medical equipment and aid to hard-hit countries such as Italy.
Governments across Asia and the West remain preoccupied with containing the spread of the virus as Covid-19 ravages their economies and populations. But once the crisis eases, the pandemic may provide a moment of reckoning for both Beijing and the U.N.
Beijing, unchallenged by an alternative vision of moral leadership, could be emboldened to completely co-opt the U.N. and accelerate current trendlines to turn it into a platform for its foreign policy initiatives. The pandemic has shown what such a world would look like: Countries largely left to fend for themselves during a cross-border crisis while the Chinese Communist Party churns out propaganda about its global leadership. Without consistent, transparent information collection and clear guidelines issued by an international coordinating body, governments and publics were woefully underprepared for the devastation that Covid-19 has ultimately wrought — and will be again in the future.
If that vision is unpalatable, then here is the alternative: The pandemic and its aftereffects could be a galvanizing moment for the United States and its democratic allies and partners to rally around their shared values—including freedom of speech and press—that China would prefer that the U.N. eschew. American leaders today face a set of decisions about whether and how to reaffirm American commitment to multilateralism and working with allies to oppose China’s efforts to hollow out the existing rules-based order.
A campaign for the truth about the origins of Covid-19 and the Chinese leadership’s early blunders is one place to start. This could begin with pressuring the WHO to provide an honest account of Beijing’s handling of the outbreak, beyond the state propaganda that the Chinese Communist Party proffers. Notably, the Trump administration and U.S. senators have already begun calling for this investigation, though they haven’t proposed a clear way forward; cutting off funding to the WHO has certainly left the United States with few allies to lead this sort of investigation.
Opportunities to advance the protection of human rights should also not go to waste. The United States and like-minded countries could call upon the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct an independent investigation into the silencing and detention of Li Wenliang, the late doctor in Wuhan who initially sounded the alarm about the virus. The findings of this investigation should be made public, in contrast to the investigation conducted by Chinese authorities that resulted in little more than an apology to Li’s family. This could ultimately create momentum for a resolution that broadly protects the rights of medical and health care professionals who speak out against institutional failings, including those at the WHO.
As it happens, the United States could have significant leverage to make these things happen. The United States and its allies have been the top contributors to the WHO: the United States alone has provided roughly 22 percent of the agency’s budget, compared to China’s 12 percent. China also remains a distant second to the United States as the largest financial contributor to the U.N. system overall.
But the way to use that leverage isn’t to withdraw it, it’s to use it to promote an alternative narrative. That’s what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in a 1942 speech commemorating the signing of the Atlantic Charter, in which he spoke of a “common program of purposes and principles” in which “faith in life, liberty, independence, and religious freedom, and in the preservation of human rights and justice” would ultimately guide the creation of the U.N.
Covid-19 has shown the world a U.N. that is morphing under Chinese influence into an organization that is nearly unrecognizable from these founding principles. Instead of serving the world’s interests, the international body is increasingly backstopping those of authoritarian actors, most notably the Chinese Communist Party.
So if American leaders don’t like how the WHO handled the coronavirus outbreak in China, the question they need to answer is, are they willing to step up instead?
Covid-19 has shown the folly of expecting international organizations to stand up to China when the world’s leading democracy abdicates its global leadership. Countries are thirsting for meaningful alternatives to Chinese leadership, and would rally behind the United States if decides to reengage with the U.N.
The first step, of course, would be to restore funding to the WHO.