Analysis

China Is Choking Civil Society at the United Nations

The Chinese government is using every means at its disposal to do battle with NGOs.

By , senior fellow with the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin.
Chinese President Xi Jinping poses after delivering his speech.
Chinese President Xi Jinping poses after delivering his speech at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on March 27, 2014. CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/AFP via Getty Images

The Jeju Olle Foundation has a straightforward and simple mission. The South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO) seeks to maintain long-distance walking trails on the country’s Jeju Island. But the organization had drawn the ire of a Chinese diplomat. At a U.N. meeting in May, the Chinese official claimed the foundation had failed to “use the correct terminology for Taiwan Province on its website.” This offense spurred Beijing’s U.N. delegation to question the South Korean outfit’s application for U.N. consultative status—a vital civil society advocacy mechanism that, among other things, permits NGOs to participate in U.N. proceedings—during the May 21 session of the U.N. Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) Committee on Nongovernmental Organizations.

The applications of six other NGOs considered on the same day, including the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership and the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization, were also deferred due to similar objections from Beijing—even though there is no U.N. provision that requires NGOs take a stance on the status of Tibet, Taiwan, or any other territories claimed by the People’s Republic of China. Other organizations, such as the World Yoga Community, have modified their websites to appease Beijing and advance their committee applications, such as by including “Province of China” after “Taiwan” or simply deleting Taiwan’s name. Others, such as the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, have given up on obtaining consultative status altogether.

China is the most active country in stalling NGO applications at the United Nations, even if the organizations engage in the most innocuous and uncontroversial activities. China is not content to control civil society within its own borders. Given the role of NGOs in advancing human rights globally and drawing attention to China’s human rights crimes, Beijing is working hard to shrink the space for these groups internationally. Although China’s military prowess and economic heft are changing the world in visible ways, Beijing’s ascendence is also manifested in its subversion of U.N. bodies as part of a more muscular global posture under Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Jeju Olle Foundation has a straightforward and simple mission. The South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO) seeks to maintain long-distance walking trails on the country’s Jeju Island. But the organization had drawn the ire of a Chinese diplomat. At a U.N. meeting in May, the Chinese official claimed the foundation had failed to “use the correct terminology for Taiwan Province on its website.” This offense spurred Beijing’s U.N. delegation to question the South Korean outfit’s application for U.N. consultative status—a vital civil society advocacy mechanism that, among other things, permits NGOs to participate in U.N. proceedings—during the May 21 session of the U.N. Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) Committee on Nongovernmental Organizations.

The applications of six other NGOs considered on the same day, including the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership and the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization, were also deferred due to similar objections from Beijing—even though there is no U.N. provision that requires NGOs take a stance on the status of Tibet, Taiwan, or any other territories claimed by the People’s Republic of China. Other organizations, such as the World Yoga Community, have modified their websites to appease Beijing and advance their committee applications, such as by including “Province of China” after “Taiwan” or simply deleting Taiwan’s name. Others, such as the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, have given up on obtaining consultative status altogether.

China is the most active country in stalling NGO applications at the United Nations, even if the organizations engage in the most innocuous and uncontroversial activities. China is not content to control civil society within its own borders. Given the role of NGOs in advancing human rights globally and drawing attention to China’s human rights crimes, Beijing is working hard to shrink the space for these groups internationally. Although China’s military prowess and economic heft are changing the world in visible ways, Beijing’s ascendence is also manifested in its subversion of U.N. bodies as part of a more muscular global posture under Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Current U.N. Committee on Nongovernmental Organizations rules allow states to pose any question, even mundane and repetitive ones, to defer an NGO’s application until the committee’s next biannual meeting. If, for example, an NGO that helps victims of human trafficking is asked a trivial question, such as why it sells handmade jewelry on its website, the organization’s application is delayed until the next meeting. Several repressive states have used this method to continually delay some applications for years. An analysis of committee meeting summaries and reports from 2016 through 2019 revealed China was the most frequent member state to pose questions to delay and block civil society applicants. It did so 340 times, outpacing South Africa (337 times), India (283 times), Cuba (220 times), and Russia (172 times).

In total, 964 NGOs with applications before the committee were deferred at least once (many were delayed repeatedly), and in 25 percent of those instances, a question from China caused the deferral. Reports and interviews with diplomats, U.N. officials, and NGO representatives provide compelling evidence that Beijing seeks to throttle NGOs—capping their role in the U.N. or attempting to bar them from participating at all. Because of these blocking efforts, a U.N. official estimated that only about 25 percent of human rights NGOs eventually receive consultative status.

This status is vital for civil society organizations’ advocacy efforts. It allows them to attend and speak at U.N. proceedings, such as the Human Rights Council, to submit information to U.N. bodies, host events at the U.N., and participate in negotiations. China, in concert with other authoritarian nations, has been active in blocking applications of civil society organizations, especially those focused on human rights. Although civil society groups have increasingly complained about misuse of the ECOSOC Committee, originally created in 1996 to facilitate NGO participation in U.N. affairs, relatively little attention has been paid to China’s strong-arming.

For example, in 2018, China attempted to strip U.N. consultative status from the Society for Threatened Peoples, an organization focused on ethnic and minority issues, because the NGO had, in the words of Beijing’s representative, “facilitated the participation of [Uyghur politician] Dolkun Isa, an individual designated as a terrorist in China” by inviting him to an Indigenous issues forum. According to the Chinese diplomat, Isa, an activist for China’s persecuted Uyghur minority, led an organization that “demanded so-called Xinjiang independence.” China relented only after the Society for Threatened Peoples sent a written response recommitting to U.N. “purposes and principles, respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China … [as well as expressing] its unequivocal opposition to terrorism.”

Chinese diplomats also may find it more convenient to cite territorial concerns regarding Taiwan or Tibet rather than openly oppose an NGO’s mission. According to a representative with a human rights advocacy organization, Beijing seized on minute issues and “complained that a map on our website used different colors for Taiwan and China.” As the NGO continued to make changes to appease Chinese officials, it became clear Beijing’s opposition to the organization was much more significant. When the NGO’s representatives met with other state delegates on the committee, “other countries said that they had already been approached by China, and China had basically asked them to oppose our application. … One of the missions said, ‘China told me that you are a very, very bad organization.’”

Other countries—especially authoritarian powers—often join Beijing in stalling NGO applications, and their actions often appear to be coordinated. According to my own research, the Like Minded-Group of Developing Countries, an informal coalition of an estimated 51 (mostly autocratic) regimes, is responsible for 94 percent of NGO-application deferrals. Autocratic states often protect one another by resisting civil society groups that focus on authoritarian allies. For instance, during the January 2016 review of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, China, Iran, and Cuba all queried the group. Diplomats reported observing “papers being passed during the committee’s session” or “a delegation, such as Egypt, standing up and walking over to another delegation [such as] Sudan, Burundi, Iran, or Venezuela, and hand[ing] them a paper that appears to be an already drafted question … and then that country would ask a question that reflected the Egyptian government’s concerns.” These efforts are worrying evidence of authoritarian collusion to cap civil society at the United Nations.

The future ability of NGOs to operate within the U.N. will depend largely on the response of democratic countries and their willingness to draw attention to the need to combat authoritarian powers that are abusing their U.N. presence. Although divisive, membership criteria could alleviate this issue. A simple benchmark for NGO Committee membership could be that any country will be banned if it has been included in the U.N. secretary-general’s report on intimidation and reprisals against civil society. Such a reform agenda will require broad support from all nations that value free assembly and civil society—not just Western liberal democracies. Inaction will allow China and its authoritarian allies to choke the life from civil society and human rights advocacy at the world body.

A full version of this essay appears in the July issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Rana Siu Inboden is senior fellow with the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of China and the International Human Rights Regime: 1982-2017.

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