Report

China’s Soft-Power Grab

Beijing is ramping up support for U.N. and a host of other international organizations, racking up more influence even as Washington is in headlong retreat.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres meets Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2018.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres meets Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2018. Andy Wong/AFP via Getty Images

China this week ramped up its crackdown on the press and other pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong, handing the world a portrait of Beijing as a menacing and bullying superpower. But at the United Nations headquarters, China is still viewed as a model country.

Beijing is investing tens of millions of dollars in international peacekeeping and mediation missions, increasing its diplomatic support for global health and sustainable development initiatives, and urging Chinese nationals to pursue a life of service at the U.N. and other international organizations. In contrast to the United States, which owes the U.N. more than $1 billion in unpaid dues, China pays its bills on time and in full. With the Trump administration accelerating its retreat from U.N. and other multilateral bodies, the Chinese government is playing offense.

The pandemic has provided China with a rare opportunity to showcase the supposed benefits of authoritarian rule at a time when the world’s leading democratic nation is floundering, and U.S. President Donald Trump is beating a retreat from the international order that America built to manage the world. But some believe that China has squandered a historic chance to advance its cause for global leadership through a secretive and ham-handed initial response to the virus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and by using the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen its grip on Hong Kong, flex its muscles in the South China Sea and on Taiwan, and clash with Indian forces on its border.

“Beijing is under assault on the global stage, and the United Nations offers a safe haven,” said Elizabeth Economy, an expert on China at the Council on Foreign Relations. “From Xinjiang to Hong Kong to Huawei, opinion within the advanced economies has turned against China.”

But inside the United Nations, China is still well regarded, Economy said—giving Beijing a brief window to burnish its credentials.

“Given the absence of U.S. leadership in the United Nations, Beijing also has a relatively clear playing field,” she said. “China will have to face the music eventually when the pandemic quiets down and the international investigation is launched. So I imagine that it is working overtime to demonstrate its ‘good actor’ bona fides.”

For Beijing, the United Nations is a safe space: a highly bureaucratic, hierarchical culture, staffed by international civil servants who defer to powerful states, whether China, Saudi Arabia, or the United States—no matter how badly they behave. At the height of the pandemic, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, found time to deliver virtual commencement addresses to top American and Chinese universities, including President Xi Jinping’s alma mater.

While the number of American nationals serving at the United Nations dwarfs that of Chinese nationals, Beijing is gaining ground, advocating for Chinese to be placed in both senior- and low-level posts.

Last summer, the Chinese outmaneuvered the United States in an election for the top job at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), looking to vote-rich regions, including Africa, to build an overwhelming advantage over a U.S.-backed candidate. Last year, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres shrugged off U.S. opposition to his appointment of a Chinese diplomat as the special representative for the Great Lakes region of Africa, a rare high-level field appointment for a Chinese national. China, meanwhile, has been looking to place Chinese nationals on the ground floor of international organizations. In 2018, more Chinese nationals, 612, took up internships at the U.N. than any other country, according to a U.N. report on staff demographics. The United States, which hosts the world body’s Manhattan headquarters, had only 460.

That effort is not limited to the U.N. In the past year, China has eclipsed the United States with 276 overseas diplomatic postings, three more than the United States, according to tracking by the Lowy Institute, an Australia-based think tank.

“For the Chinese Communist Party, Donald Trump presented a historic opportunity: a leader of the free world who doesn’t believe in the free world and doesn’t want to lead it,” said Michael Fullilove, the executive director of the Lowy Institute. But China’s heavy-handed approach—whether in regions close to home, like the crackdown in Hong Kong, or farther afield, such as its imposition of trade prohibitions on Australia for proposing an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic—has undermined its fleeting chance to take advantage of Trump’s abdication of American leadership.

“China is squandering that opportunity—and in November, Americans are likely to send Mr. Trump back to Trump Tower,” Fullilove said.

Since the end of the Cold War three decades ago, China has slowly expanded its role at the United Nations, dispatching soldiers to U.N. peacekeeping missions at a time when the United States was reducing its own participation. Today, China has more U.N. blue helmets, more than 2,500, than any of the other four permanent members of U.N. Security Council. But it largely played a passive role until recently, leaving the United States and its European partners, particularly Britain and France, to set U.N. security priorities.

Under Xi, who came to power in 2012, China has since sought to play a more assertive role. In September 2015, Xi pledged before the U.N. General Assembly to place 8,000 Chinese troops on standby for U.N. peacekeeping and to establish a $1 billion fund to support multilateralism and the U.N. peace and development programs. China has wielded its veto power in the U.N. Security Council 10 times since 2011, joining forces with Russia to block a series of resolutions on Syria.

It has taken on greater financial investment in the U.N., surpassing Japan as the second-largest financial contributor, after the United States. It has also been doling out voluntary funds. Each year, China pours tens of millions of dollars into two funds. One, which is run out of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs and which has been led by a former Chinese diplomat for more than a decade, supports China’s Belt and Road Initiative alongside the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. A second, run out of Guterres’s office, distributes more than $10 million a year to peacekeeping and mediation efforts, including more than $350,000 to the office of the special envoy of the Great Lakes region, led by a Chinese national. The U.N. has hired a former Chinese Foreign Ministry official to monitor the fund.

For years, Chinese nationals have been underrepresented at the U.N. In 2017, China had just over 1,100 staff working in the U.N. system, ranking the country 24th among all member states, and only about one-fifth of the number of American staffers. But in 2016, Xi vowed to strengthen “China’s pool of international bureaucrats to support China’s participation in global governance,” Courtney Fung and Shing-hon Lam, scholars at the University of Hong Kong, told Foreign Policy by email.

Their research found that the number of Chinese nationals at U.N. agencies—including FAO, which is led by a Chinese national, and WHO, which has faced charges from Washington of being biased toward China—has at least doubled in the past decade. In New York, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs is viewed by many Western delegates as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

In an effort to boost Chinese representation at the U.N. and other international organizations, Chinese universities have promoted foreign language classes and offered courses and scholarships for students interested in studying international organizations. “According to [the] Ministry of Education, these scholarship applicants should meet basic qualities and specific criteria to include patriotism to the Motherland,” Fung and Lam wrote.

In May, the China Scholarship Council, which provides government-funded scholarships to students studying abroad, underscored its interest in expanding its support for Chinese nationals in U.N. bodies, stating in a paper that it had formed partnerships with nine U.N. agencies to employ interns and entry-level staffers. China’s participation in the programs still pales in comparison with industrialized countries like Germany, Denmark, and France, which have supplied hundreds of junior professionals. But the China Scholarship Council has set a target of 400 Chinese nationals in the programs, according to a diplomatic source. “China is late in the game about boosting its nationals’ numbers through the ranks of the U.N. system,” Fung and Lam wrote.

In many ways, China’s latest offensive, especially its courtship of votes in the developing world, is a throwback to Mao Zedong’s strategy in the 1950s, when the nascent People’s Republic bought support of Asian and African governments to advance its agenda. China’s direct investment in Africa, which accounts for 54 votes in the U.N. General Assembly, has grown dramatically over the past decade, from $75 million in 2003 to $5.4 billion in 2018, surpassing the United States in 2014.

“Why are the Americans getting so outplayed?” said Bruce Jones, the director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. “China exerts its influence not by funding the secretariat but because it is a major development partner with a majority of countries in Asia and Africa and Latin America. They all recognize there is a bilateral cost if they oppose China.”

Europe, in particular, has heeded Washington’s warnings about China’s nefarious activities. Britain banned the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from participating in its 5G network, and the European Union has both stepped up screening of Chinese investment and condemned China’s imposition of a new national security law severely curtailing freedoms in Hong Kong. That might hearten China hawks in the Beltway—but the view from Africa and Asia is very different.

“The hawks in the U.S. want to hear China is hurting itself, but it is more complicated,” Jones said.

Even so, Beijing is counterpunching. In July, the Chinese Mission to the U.N. published a 43-page booklet—“What’s False and What’s True on China-related Human Rights Matters”—to parry criticism of its conduct in Hong Kong, its mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and its role in suppressing information about the spread of the coronavirus.

“China has launched an international counter-offensive,” Michel Duclos, a former senior French diplomat with the Institut Montaigne, recently wrote. “It has capitalized on a quick exit from the health crisis to showcase its governance model abroad, with a blend of seduction and unabashed brutality.”

“This forceful public diplomacy offensive could have mixed results,” he added. “But what should hold our attention is China’s patent intention to consolidate a zone of influence, or a juxtaposition of areas of clientelism: Africa, whole areas in Europe, some Middle Eastern states, Central Asia, [and] the Silk Road.”

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

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola