Balancing China at the United Nations


If the COVID-19 pandemic is to have any positive geopolitical impact whatsoever, it should be drawing full attention to China’s attempt to exert control over key institutions at the United Nations. Beijing was willing to exert pressure not only on other countries but also on the World Health Organization to deflect attention away from its own initial mishandling of the crisis. While China delayed releasing its much-needed data about the virus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Ghebreyesus, applauded the transparency and effectiveness of China’s response. As countries were beginning to close their airspace from flights to and from China, Ghebreyesus openly advised against travel restrictions.

It is damaging to the credibility of the U.N. system that the independence of the World Health Organization could be questioned in dealing with the most serious pandemic in 100 years. Unfortunately, the handling of the COVID-19 crisis is symptomatic for China’s growing effort to lobby and influence some of the key U.N. agencies based in Geneva, Switzerland, apart from the World Health Organization: the Human Rights Council, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the International Telecommunications Union. The consequences of China’s actions are antithetical to Western interests and depart so fundamentally from the United Nations’ original purpose that they can no longer be ignored. Liberal-minded countries around the world need to engage in a dedicated effort to check Beijing’s bid for high-level positions and its redefinition of the global norms for human rights and the use of technology.

Battle Over Human Rights

In the U.N. Human Rights Council, China promotes a normative agenda that privileges development rights over individual human rights. China recently made one more step forward in rebranding the human rights narrative as a state-to-state matter, which ignores the responsibility of states to protect the rights of the individual and which treats universal human rights as subject to negotiation and compromise. China has other resolutions in the pipeline that could shift the focus of human rights away from individuals and towards the well-being of societies.



The U.S. decision in 2018 to withdraw from the Human Rights Council created a space for China to fill. Beijing successfully leverages the increasing number of countries that depend on its finances and investments to muster enough votes to keep the world’s liberal-minded countries in minority. It is emerging as a leader within the growing “Like-Minded Group”, consisting of autocrats and semi-autocrats that wish to end the practice of publicly criticizing and investigating individual countries’ human rights abuses.

When the United Kingdom this summer led an effort in the Human Rights Council to criticize the abolishment of Hong Kong’s legal autonomy, China mobilized a counter-coalition of countries defending its action. China recently mounted a similar successful counter-coalition against German-led criticism. It bodes poorly for the ability to shed light on human rights violations everywhere in the world that Pakistan, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China were recently elected as new members of the Human Rights Council as of 2021.

Battle Over Tech Standards

China, meanwhile, is leveraging its influence at the United Nations to position itself as a leader in setting the standards in the development of surveillance and censorship technology in the world. The United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union, which, since 2015, has been headed by a Chinese secretary general, Houlin Zhao, gives Beijing a global venue and a privileged entry point for the promotion of technical standards that will influence the use of new technology. Global standard setting goes hand-in-hand with the technological solutions that China exports bilaterally through the Belt and Road Initiative and other efforts to enable the capacity of autocratic and semi-autocratic regimes for domestic repression.

China’s efforts to shape global standards within the International Telecommunications Union focus on artificial facial recognition, specifically on how the data captured by cameras and surveillance devices are analyzed and stored. Since the standards lack safeguards against privacy intrusion and free speech repression, it is hardly surprising that a number of authoritarian countries align with China in the global standardization bodies. But it is worrying that countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia tend to follow China’s lead because its Digital Silk Road satisfies their growing appetites for inexpensive technology or because they otherwise depend on Chinese capital.

Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that China uses the International Telecommunications Union as an entry point for a radical proposal to reinvent the Internet. China seeks to replace the unified World Wide Web with a patchwork of national internets, each with their own rules, similar to its own long-standing concept of cyber sovereignty. Most liberal-minded countries welcome more regulatory power in cyberspace. However, China’s proposal is much more expansive in terms of government control over information and plays into the hands of autocrats and semi-autocrats around the globe that seek to gate individual access to the Internet.

China has been able to grow so fast over the past few decades in part due to the theft of intellectual property. It would have been all the more damaging to the credibility of the United Nations if China, earlier this year, had succeeded in the promotion of a Chinese candidate to head the Word Intellectual Property Organization. While Beijing lobbied especially African countries to vote for its candidate, U.S. counter-lobbying (in favor of a Singaporean candidate) proved successful in preventing Beijing’s attempt to expand its influence within yet another crucial U.N. body.

Beijing’s Growing U.N. Power

China’s lobbying and influence across the United Nations reflects its longstanding ambition to change global governance. China differs from other powers in the sense that it seeks to revise the norms that the United Nations is supposed to serve and the practices by which it functions. But allowing China to continue to grow its power and influence unchecked may allow it to consolidate a position of dominance among certain countries, which would depart fundamentally from the United Nations’ original purpose of values-based cooperation.

It is not a coincidence that Beijing seeks to occupy the high positions in what on the surface may seem like technical agencies, but which, in reality, have significant political ramifications. Agenda-setting power matters. It gives a reason for concern that China already heads four out of the 15 U.N. specialized agencies, whereas no other country has its citizens at the top of more than one agency. Given its own record of intellectual property theft, it is telling that an emboldened China did not even hold itself back from seeking to win the leadership of the World Intellectual Property Organization. This would have been a severe blow to the credibility of the United Nations as an impartial administrator of the global intellectual property regime. Moreover, as seen with Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization, whose election China helped secure in 2017, Beijing may have other informal influence channels at the top levels that only become obvious during a crisis situation.

In an age when great-power competition centers so crucially on technological predominance, it should be a particular concern that Houlin Zhao was reelected as secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union as recently as in 2018 to serve for another term until 2023. The fact that China does not operate with a meaningful distinction between state responsibilities and private corporate rights is key to understanding why it is so problematic to entrust it a role as an impartial arbiter of international tech cooperation. The Chinese government, in alliance with Chinese companies in the recent years, has intensified its activism and leadership at the working levels of the global standards-setting bodies.

Liberal-minded states need to operate from a refined understanding of China’s push for technological leadership, which goes hand-in-hand with its push for national sovereignty to prevail over individual rights. China leverages the existing dependencies through the United Nations — persuading countries to vote for its standards and norms in the United Nations to advance its interests. It is unacceptable that China uses its leverage to transform the human rights agenda for an alternative understanding of international order. China’s bonding with like-minded autocracies and developing countries that welcome its technology and its state-centric and development-oriented redefinition of human rights threatens to develop into durable alliances that will likely consolidate as an order separate from the West.

The systemic effects of China’s rise may not be preventable. However, China’s use of the United Nations for this purpose should be resisted. The United Nations should be defended as an organization that was explicitly founded 75 years ago to achieve international cooperation with respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. China needs to be engaged as the demographic and economic superpower it has become. But it would be a mistake to allow Beijing to use the United Nations as a platform to promote alternative norms and standards for a new China-led order that would silently break away from the old Western-led order.

Checking China

Western countries should check China’s growing influence and lobbying as they emerge across the U.N. system. It should be a common Western project — not mainly a U.S. effort — to lobby against Chinese appointments to high positions in U.N. agencies. China’s success in promoting its own candidates in the face of a disunited West highlights the importance of rallying support behind one candidate. Together, the Western countries should fight Beijing’s style of backroom deals and coercion by safeguarding the secrecy in the national voting for leadership positions of the U.N. bodies. There is enough work to start preparing, as six of the 15 specialized agencies will have elections before the end of 2021.

Western countries should concentrate their efforts on the International Telecommunications Union to prevent it from devolving into a Chinese club for technological standardization. Nothing can justify fracturing the decentralized and open architecture of the global Internet, which is not static but has evolved dynamically to meet new needs, far beyond what its founders originally envisaged. The acceptance of facial recognition technology without ethical safeguards for the use of data will harden regimes throughout the world and set a dangerous precedent for other areas of artificial intelligence.

Building momentum against China’s diplomatic influence at the United Nations is possible, as seen with the awakening about 5G standards. Like-minded countries need to match China’s growing presence and leadership in the international standardization bodies and insist that the processes be market-driven and, where applicable, human rights-complying. Allowing China’s radical tech initiatives go unopposed would give them political legitimacy. What is needed is not a confrontation against the Chinese government and companies, but a measured approach to regulate the use of technology that is more likely to build coalitions. The best way to do that is to balance China’s influence in the institutions that set the agenda and standards for key global technologies.

Western countries should work together to prevent China from promoting norms and standards that run counter to Western values and interests. Withdrawing from the U.N. institutions is most certainly the wrong strategy to keep Chinese influence at bay. This is true for the World Health Organization, which the United States is withdrawing from under President Donald Trump but which incoming President Joseph Biden has vowed to return to once he is in office. In the Human Rights Council, U.S. reengagement is truly indispensable to prevent the slide of the basic definitions that spill over into the technical areas. The European countries find themselves in a weakened position to stand up for fundamental principles without the United States.

Preventing China’s rebranding of human rights for the sake of strengthening ties with like-minded countries around the world is the core of what is at stake within the U.N. system. The Human Rights Council needs to return to the basics, as enshrined in Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with a strong core and a flexible interpretation of other priorities. This means principled criticism of China’s violations in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong and of the crackdowns in Belarus, but flexibility on other issues, such as sexual reproductive health and rights. This may be a difficult sell in some Western capitals, but it is necessary to refocus the agenda on the most blatant human rights violations, which happen to be committed by autocracies. The goal should be to unify nations behind a shared agenda. Today, finding a lowest common denominator is preferable to let the world split into two competing orders.



Henrik B. L. Larsen, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zürich.

Image: Chinese Permanent Mission to the United Nations at Geneva


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