World

Fifty Years of Chinese Subversion at the U.N.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, January 18, 2017. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
Beijing’s corruption of the organization can be seen everywhere.

Fifty years ago today, Taiwan’s foreign minister made a prediction about the Chinese Communist Party that’s held up spectacularly well.

“Once it has been seated both in the General Assembly and in the Security Council, it will surely transform the United Nations into a Maoist front and a battlefield for international subversion,” said the Republic of China’s foreign minister, Chow Shu-Kai, in New York following a crushing vote of the U.N.’s General Assembly to hand the organization’s “China” seat to the Communist-ruled People’s Republic of China (PRC), replacing Chow’s government.

The General Assembly adopted that measure, Resolution 2758, on October 25, 1971. Half a century later, Chow’s prediction about a Chinese Communist Party subversion campaign has been borne out in no uncertain terms across the U.N. system.

What’s known about the party’s international subversion efforts, as Chow put it, is chilling — and it’s likely only the tip of the iceberg. In recent weeks alone, Chinese officials silenced an Indian delegate to a U.N. conference hosted in Beijing, peddled lies about their colleagues’ perpetration of mass atrocities, and installed a Chinese-government-aligned “expert” at the U.N. body that monitors torture allegations.

The only part of Chow’s statement that hasn’t held up is Chow’s claim that Turtle Bay would become a “Maoist front,” but only because it’s become a front for Xi Jinping Thought — the Chinese leader’s self-proclaimed ruling doctrine, which seeks to shape international governance to Chinese ends — instead.

Resolution 2758, the original sin of Taipei’s ensuing international isolation (which it is only starting to reverse), also became an excuse for U.N. officials to continue to shun Taiwan from the massive international bureaucracy. Although the resolution concerned only the representation of the U.N.’s “China” seat, successive secretaries general, starting with Ban Ki-moon in 2007, have instead erroneously interpreted it to mean a total endorsement of Beijing’s claims over Taiwan and as an order to ban all 23 million of the island democracy’s citizens from even accessing the U.N.’s grounds.

Under Xi, Taiwanese citizens can’t participate in the World Health Assembly, much less tour U.N. facilities. Naturally, this exclusion has resulted in some nasty consequences, such as the COVID pandemic. “We would have not lost millions of lives if our warning had been posted in the systems immediately,” Taiwan’s de facto U.N. ambassador James Lee told me last month about the WHO’s failure to process his country’s warnings about virus cases reported in Wuhan in December 2019.

If there was ever any doubt about where the U.N. bureaucracy stands on the question of the Chinese Communist Party’s deadly success in sidelining Taiwan — and there never has been — deputy secretary general Amina Mohammed summed up the institutional position in a video celebrating the PRC’s 50th anniversary at the organization and the “remarkable achievements” of the partnership.

“We appreciate not only China’s steadfast financial support over the decades, which enables the U.N. system to support peace and development around the world, but its support of the landmark reforms we are undertaking to strengthen the U.N. development system for the future,” Mohammed said.

China’s efforts to reinvent the way that international organizations talk about human rights, by attempting to steer the debate at the U.N. Human Rights Council, is merely the most publicly prominent, and offensive, aspect of the U.N. influence campaign. (Thankfully, it’s also one that democracies have awakened to since 2018, when Chinese diplomats won adoption of a resolution invoking their favored language on human rights.)

Not coincidentally, the conference at which the Indian official was silenced was one about sustainability in transportation. It’s in the international-development space that Beijing has its strongest grip and has even managed to make its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) a central pillar of U.N. development efforts around the globe. And perhaps not coincidentally, Mohammed has been implicated in a corruption scandal for signing off on the export of the timber of endangered trees to China during her stint as Nigeria’s environment minister.

That sort of corruption is endemic to the organization’s work, as the 2017 arrest of Patrick Ho, director of a think tank affiliated with the CEFC Chinese energy conglomerate, on charges of bribery suggests. Ho had been promoting BRI in the U.N. system, including by bribing African diplomats, including the then-president of the General Assembly. As a report about the incident pointed out, Ho’s arrest was the third such bribery case related to Chinese efforts to influence the U.N. since 2015.

Beyond rank corruption, and the incorporation of Beijing’s geopolitical-influence projects into the U.N.’s development lexicon, the party has started to control the very bureaucracy by which the organization functions, managing to install staff members from the most junior levels to the highest executive posts at U.N. agencies, such as the International Telecommunication Union.

These are offices that most Americans haven’t heard about and would think to be irrelevant to their lives. But each executive post is for Beijing a stepping-stone to dominance over a global governance system that it has already started to weaponize to its advantage.

Chow’s comment that the U.N. would become a “battlefield for international subversion” is also accurate because there is in fact a battle since Washington started to push back against the dual problem of China’s interference and Taiwan’s exclusion.

In the Trump administration, this started with a successful campaign to halt Beijing’s string of U.N. election victories by successfully rallying U.S. allies behind Singapore’s candidate to lead the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2020.

And the Biden administration has proved willing to elevate the issue of Taiwan’s total U.N. isolation. In a statement this weekend, the State Department said that U.S. officials had convened with their Taiwanese counterparts and had “reiterated the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s meaningful participation at the World Health Organization and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change” among other things.

Whether the U.S. drive to reintegrate Taiwan will, as American Enterprise Institute scholars Michael Mazza and Gary Schmitt advocate in a new report, lead to a “hardball” U.S.-led campaign for the country’s inclusion, utilizing all of Washington’s sway in the effort, is still unclear. But only by placing Taiwan at the center of the U.S. agenda can Washington stand a chance at rooting out authoritarian corruption at the U.N., because those two issues are different fronts on the same battlefield.

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