Китайская сделка о глобальном влиянии окупается
Besides Beijing’s splashy but meager contribution to the WHO, in the past week China sent a representative to an EU-led pledging conference to find a vaccine. The United States declined to participate. In a phone call with reporters, a senior administration official repeatedly sidestepped questions about why, and insisted that “our cooperation with European partners continues to be extremely robust.”
The pattern repeats itself all over the planet. The U.S. still gives billions in foreign aid every year, and the funding touches all facets of life in other countries including public health, military training, sanitation, and women’s rights. But China is a shiny relative newcomer in many developing countries that have come to take U.S. assistance for granted. In the past 15 years China has been plowing money into megaprojects like airports and dams—strategic and flashy investments, unavoidable monuments to China’s ambitions and staying power. And the funding doesn’t tend to come with the same kinds of pro-transparency and human-rights-protection strings attached to American aid, which makes it more attractive to corrupt or authoritarian governments. So even if China doesn’t give more, it advertises better.
Chinese leaders also present their own country as a voice for the developing world against the dominant Western global powers. “They were the big players” in trying to get the World Health Organization to focus on developing countries’ issues, David Hohman, who formerly served as Deputy Director of the Office of Global Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, told me. “Fortunately in WHO you don’t vote on things, but if you ever did, [China has] the votes … It was a big advantage to them.”
Meanwhile, Beijing is working to rewrite the rules of the liberal system America once prided itself on having built. China has gotten two resolutions through the UN’s Human Rights Council, Hart explained in written testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission this spring, one “suggesting that human rights must be balanced with economic development needs,” and another asking that cultural contexts be taken into account when considering human rights standards. Hart told me that “the U.S. currently doesn’t care about the UN Human Rights Council. China does.” (The U.S. withdrew from that body in 2018 when then–UN Ambassador Nikki Haley accused it of being biased against Israel.) And the watering-down of international standards, Hart says, creates “maneuvering room” for authoritarians around the world.
“It is not a good idea to let dictators run UN agencies,” said Bernard, who retired from the U.S. Public Health Service. “Not because it’s particularly China or not China. It’s because the constituencies for those issues get hurt.” China is currently holding up to 1 million Uighur Muslims in what it calls “re-education” camps in conditions that rights groups and other governments have condemned.
“If any government other than China was holding a million Muslims arbitrarily, I think we can reasonably assume we would already be well under way in a discussion, not just about investigation, but about accountability,” Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told me. But the UN hasn’t even launched an investigation. At one point in April 2017, according to a Human Rights Watch report, UN security escorted a Uighur activist out of UN headquarters, where he was participating in a forum. A Chinese diplomat later bragged about it on state media, Hart noted in her testimony.
In another instance that Human Rights Watch highlighted, the Chinese government detained an activist who tried to go to Geneva for a session at the Human Rights Council. After the activist, Cao Shunli, died following a six-month detention, Chinese diplomats in Geneva blocked efforts to hold a moment of silence in her memory. China’s “human-rights agenda is not about human rights,” Bernard said. “It’s about Chinese politics.”
The same is true of any other mechanism China uses to build its influence around the world. If China has pushed to install its diplomats at the helm of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, it’s not necessarily because the Chinese Communist Party cares a great deal about the issues at the core of those agencies. It’s about gaining political and economic influence over member states. Case in point: Cameroon put forward a candidate to lead the Food and Agriculture Organization, who withdrew after Beijing forgave Cameroonian debt. China also reportedly threatened to cut off important exports to other countries if they refused to back Beijing’s candidate. The Chinese candidate won.
Leah Feiger contributed reporting.
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Kathy Gilsinan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, covering national security and global affairs.
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