As U.S. Retreats From World Organizations, China Steps in to Fill the Void

Beijing is trying to repurpose abandoned international agencies like UNESCO to serve its strategic interests — such as controlling the internet.

China's President Xi Jinping poses after delivering his speech at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on March 27, 2014. After a day devoted to multi-billion-dollar business deals, Chinese leader Xi Jinping trained his sights on culture and history today on the last day of his lavish visit to France. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Christian Hartmann        (Photo credit should read CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/AFP/Getty Images)
China's President Xi Jinping poses after delivering his speech at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on March 27, 2014. After a day devoted to multi-billion-dollar business deals, Chinese leader Xi Jinping trained his sights on culture and history today on the last day of his lavish visit to France. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Christian Hartmann (Photo credit should read CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/AFP/Getty Images)

China’s latest bid to flex its diplomatic muscles on the world stage rests in the hands of Qian Tang, a little-known 66-year-old Chinese United Nations bureaucrat campaigning to head up the organization’s top cultural, scientific, and education agency.

Tang, the assistant director-general for education at the Paris-based UNESCO, is one of a growing stable of Chinese nationals Beijing is promoting to serve in top international posts. The push reflects Beijing’s desire to project a more visible “soft power” profile around the world and fill a political void left by an American administration that has grown skeptical of multilateralism.

“China wants to fulfill its global responsibility and contribute to peace and development at a global level,” Tang told Foreign Policy in an interview. “They think UNESCO is a good platform.”

In recent years, Chinese candidates have taken on senior posts at the World Bank, Interpol, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, and the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization. China also provides more troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions than any of the four other big powers on the U.N. Security Council and has sent its generals to lead missions in Western Sahara and Cyprus; Chinese blue helmets have died on deployment in South Sudan and Mali.

In a sense, China is simply using its growing economic and political clout at the U.N. to pick up distressed assets abandoned by the United States and its allies and repurpose them to serve its strategic goals.

“It doesn’t surprise me that China would try to contest every opportunity to get a U.N. slot. Why wouldn’t they?” said Peter Yeo, president of the the Better World Campaign, a U.N. advocacy group, who notes that China is now the second-biggest funder of the U.N. He calls the Chinese push the natural extension of U.S. disengagement.

But China’s pursuit of crucial international posts has raised alarm among human rights and free speech advocates who fear Beijing will wield its influence to advance its security and economic interests and set back progress on human rights and freedom of expression.

In the year since a former Chinese official was appointed head of Interpol, Beijing has successfully used the organization’s “red notice” system to pursue critics living abroad. Beijing has also pressed to cut funding for human rights investigators in U.N. peacekeeping operations. In Geneva, the U.N. has stifled Chinese human rights advocates from making their case before the world.

“China has worked consistently, often aggressively, to silence criticism of its human rights record at the United Nations,” Louis Charbonneau, Human Rights Watch’s U.N. director, told FP. “With China’s international influence growing and growing, there is a worry that what it’s doing could undermine the U.N. human rights system overall.”

The fight over control of UNESCO, an agency that Chinese President Xi Jinping has been keenly interested in since he took office, isn’t just about overseeing world heritage sites and educational programs. Chinese officials also see UNESCO as a vehicle to regulate the global internet.

China, Brazil, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and others pressed UNESCO back in 2013 to position itself “strategically in the international debates concerning cyberspace in the coming years.” And Tang said that he hopes that UNESCO can provide a stage for the world to wrestle with how to strike the proper balance between free expression, privacy, and the need to prevent abuses of the internet by extremists.

The internet, he said, is a “double-edged sword” that has massively expanded public access to information but has also enabled “bad people who use it and spread hatred and discriminatory information.” He noted that even countries in the West, including Britain and Germany, are moving to control aspects of the internet. “I believe we are a very unique platform to let all people to debate this,” he said.

Early last month, China offered a detailed blueprint of its aims to give the U.N. a bigger role in regulating cyberspace. “The pressing task is to adopt international norms for cyberspace that are acceptable to all,” according to a Chinese position paper that was obtained by FP. “China will continue to support the UN as the main channel of safeguarding international cyber security, establishing order and developing international rules for cyberspace.”

Tang said he does not believe China’s largesse at UNESCO and his bid for leadership is part of a broader strategy to supplant the United States. “I don’t think China ever thought about it. To me, that it is probably a coincidence. They have good intentions,” he said.

And Tang, who says he is “personally committed” to freedom of expression, said he does not believe China plans on “using me to control the internet” or to suppress basic freedoms.

If Tang wins the race to head UNESCO — he’s the frontrunner in a eight-person race that begins Monday — he will join two other Chinese nationals heading international organizations seeking a role in how the internet is managed. Houlin Zhao is the secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, which promotes internet governance, and Liu Zhenmin, a former Chinese diplomat, currently heads the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which oversees conferences dealing with internet matters.

Some tailwinds are now blowing in China’s favor.

After Islamic State operatives used the internet to recruit operatives and spread propaganda, and Russian hackers showed how the internet can be used to tilt an election, many policymakers are beginning to rethink the free-for-all approach to internet speech.

That plays into the hands of Beijing, which censors large parts of its domestic internet and blocks outright some online services, such as Facebook and, most recently, WhatsApp. China could push for a similarly aggressive stance on internet governance at UNESCO, said James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, though he points out that China has notched few victories so far.

Other technologists and policymakers are also alarmed.

“For all its flaws, the internet has been an incredible force for the flow of information and freedom of thought,” said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at New America. “Beijing views that not as a right or benefit, but as a threat to be controlled. Blocks of information and control mechanisms to engineer society to government interests would characterize the internet future it seeks.”

“To me, I find this chilling,” a former Obama administration official said. “We know that China has walled off its own internet to its own citizens. Just think about UNESCO being run by the largest totalitarian power in the world. It is chilling.

China’s push for leadership there is made possible in large part by U.S. withdrawal. In 2011, the United States, its hand forced by law, cut off $80 million in annual funding to UNESCO — about 22 percent of its entire budget — in retaliation for the organization’s acceptance of Palestine as a member organization. China moved quickly to fill the void, committing millions in extrabudgetary support for education programs, including an initial $8 million contribution to fund teacher training programs in eight African countries. China has also shoveled money into UNESCO’s cultural programs, contributing $5 million to re-launch UNESCO’s defunct quarterly magazine, the Courier. Chinese companies, meanwhile, have given more than $15 million to UNESCO since the United States pulled out, according to Tang.

Meanwhile, the United States has no confirmed ambassador at UNESCO and has lost its vote in the organization’s principle decision-making body, the general conference. However, an American chargé d’affaires is permitted to participate in the conference’s work and represents the United States on UNESCO’s executive board.

It didn’t have to be that way, said the former senior Obama administration official. Washington failed to pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay out of UNESCO and made little effort to convince Congress to issue a waiver to maintain funding.

“That was a strategic failure of the Obama administration,” the former official said. “UNESCO was a piece of real estate that the Chinese were very interested in.”

Conservative critics of the United Nations aren’t worried.

“If China wants to burnish its prestige by becoming the head of a rather irrelevant organization, that is up to them,” said Brett Schaefer, a U.N. expert at the Heritage Foundation, referring to UNIDO. As for UNESCO, Schaefer said if U.N. members put Beijing in charge of championing values to which it is “fundamentally opposed,” that’s a sign other member states “really don’t value those principles as they should.”

But if China spotted a tactical opening at UNESCO during the Obama years, the opportunity to supplant Washington on the global stage has only grown bigger with the election of Donald Trump and his isolationist, “America First” policy.

Since then, China has sought to portray itself as a responsible alternative, highlighting its support for international agreements, include the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, and affirming its commitment to the United Nations.

In January, Xi traveled to the U.N.’s European headquarters in Geneva to deliver a speech rejecting isolationism and trade protectionism and placing the U.N. at the center of international affairs. Tellingly, activists, human rights advocates, and other nongovernmental organizations were barred from attending the speech.

Foreign Policy staff writers Emily Tamkin and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian contributed to this report.

Christian Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, October 8, 2017: The United States has no confirmed ambassador to UNESCO, but the U.S. is represented by an American chargé d’affaires, who sits on UNESCO’s executive board. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the U.S. is not represented on the executive board.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

 Twitter: @EliasGroll