Shaping the Narrative

Shaping the Narrative

Beijing Furthers Party Agenda by Influencing Global Bodies


With the world watching, a global health organization deferred to political pressure from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as Chinese officials tried to obscure the genesis of a worldwide pandemic while keeping their political opponents in check. World Health Organization (WHO) officials lavished public praise on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for its transparency in fighting the coronavirus while privately complaining about Beijing’s refusal to hand over data after the disease was first detected in Wuhan, China. WHO officials even lambasted countries for imposing travel bans on Chinese citizens.

It’s a pattern playing out across a wide spectrum of sensitive areas of global governance and industry. Chinese officials or their proxies take over leadership positions in international organizations — from civil aviation and telecommunications to human rights bodies — and steer the agencies into supporting the CCP’s often corrupt agenda. 

“Beijing has never been shy about using every tool in its toolkit to pursue its agenda, and global organizations play an important role in that objective,” Daniel Wagner, chief executive officer at Country Risk Solutions, told FORUM. Wagner, a widely published author on public affairs issues who has worked in risk management in the Indo-Pacific, summed up the PRC’s goals: “Beijing is in the process of creating an alternative world order based on its unique world view, which sees Chinese interest as paramount. The danger is that these institutions become hijacked without even understanding what Beijing is doing, based on gaps and inconsistencies in their operating regulations.”

Residents of Wuhan, China, wear face masks as they line up for coronavirus testing. Critics say People’s Republic of China officials initially withheld details of how severe the Wuhan outbreak had become. REUTERS

Viral Video, Rising Alarm

Although Taiwan is viewed as having achieved great success in stopping the spread of COVID-19, it remains locked out of WHO membership due to the agency’s relationship with the PRC. The extent of the PRC’s influence over WHO went viral in March 2020 when a top WHO official not only avoided a reporter’s questions about Taiwan but even hung up on her when she persisted. Video of the incident elicited worldwide criticism of the agency.

By mid-July 2020, Taiwan’s population of nearly 24 million had recorded 455 COVID-19 cases and seven deaths. Taiwan officials argued they should not be left out of the pandemic discussion when they had pertinent information to share. Taiwan health officials had emailed WHO on December 31, 2019, asking for more information about “atypical pneumonia cases.” Getting no response, Taiwan instituted health screenings that day for all flights from Wuhan and charged ahead with protecting its citizens. On January 26, 2020, Taiwan became the first territory to ban inbound flights from Wuhan. Besides quarantining travelers early in the spread of the disease, Taiwan’s COVID-19 measures included closely monitoring people in quarantine. 

“We hope through the test of this epidemic the WHO can recognize clearly that epidemics do not have national borders. No one place should be left out because any place that is left out could become a loophole. … Any place’s strength shouldn’t be neglected so that it can make contributions to the world,” Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said at a news conference, the BBC reported.

Unlike many neighboring countries, Taiwan achieved a five-month streak from mid-April 2020 to mid-September 2020 of having no locally transmitted coronavirus cases, reported the online magazine The Diplomat. Every positive case after April 12 was either imported from a person traveling abroad who tested positive during a mandatory 14-day quarantine or from a cluster aboard a Taiwan Navy ship returning from a goodwill mission to Palau, The Diplomat reported.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, wears a mask after leaving a ceremony in Geneva in June 2020. Tedros has come under fire for his agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Questions concerning WHO’s response to the pandemic run much deeper, however, than its exclusion of Taiwan. An investigation by The Associated Press (AP) revealed that while WHO officials praised the PRC throughout January 2020 for its speedy public health response and for sharing the genetic map of the virus “immediately,” officials inside the agency were privately complaining that they were not getting timely medical data. Chinese officials refused to release the genetic map of the deadly virus for more than a week after multiple government labs had fully decoded it and did not share details necessary for designing tests and vaccines. Records obtained by AP show that WHO officials were frustrated that the PRC was stonewalling at a time when the outbreak could have been slowed. 

“We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,” WHO’s top official in China, Dr. Gauden Galea, said in one meeting, referring to the state-owned China Central Television.

The WHO didn’t declare COVID-19 a global emergency until January 30, 2020, during a meeting in which WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia profusely thanked the PRC for its cooperation. “We should have actually expressed our respect and gratitude to China for what it’s doing,” he said, according to an AP report. “It has already done incredible things to limit the transmission of the virus to other countries.”

Tedros won the election to lead WHO in 2017 over a candidate from the United Kingdom because of fierce lobbying by Beijing and about 50 African states. Tedros worked closely with the PRC when he was Ethiopia’s health minister during a time when his country was borrowing billions from the PRC. Many analysts suggested that he acted as a PRC proxy after becoming head of WHO. Just months after taking the helm, he named former Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe, a notorious human rights violator, a goodwill ambassador. He only backed down after an international uproar ensued. 

“Diplomats said [Mugabe’s] appointment was a political payoff from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — the WHO’s first African director-general — to the PRC, a longtime ally of Mugabe, and the 50 or so African states that helped to secure Tedros’ election earlier this year,” columnist Rebecca Myers wrote in the U.K.’s The Sunday Times newspaper in October 2017.

The WHO’s perceived deference to Beijing during the spread of COVID-19 was not without consequence. The United States suspended payments to the health organization for 60 days in April 2020 pending an investigation into what officials called an information cover-up and crisis mismanagement. The U.S. formally withdrew from the health body in early July 2020. The World Health Assembly in May 2020 approved an independent review of the WHO-coordinated virus response, including the source of the virus and how it was transmitted to humans. 

Beijing used its lobbying power within the United Nations to paint possible human rights violations at reeducation camps as counterterrorism work. This camp is in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Global Effort

The PRC’s ability to ascend to leadership positions in global bodies is key to furthering CCP narratives, Wagner said. In many cases, it exercises an outsized influence compared with its financial investments. “Although Beijing does not have the same level of shareholding in most multilateral organizations that the U.S., Japan and some European nations do, it has used its membership in these organizations to make up for the difference through enhanced influence,” Wagner said. “For example, it leads four subdivisions of the U.N. [more than any other member country] and wields a lot of influence in the decision-making process at the multilateral development banks — far beyond what its shareholding would dictate.”

The PRC holds leadership positions in dozens of international governing bodies and owns the top positions in the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Industrial Development Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The WHO debate, Wagner explained, is an example of Beijing’s influence being far greater than its investment. Public data shows that at the end of 2019, the PRC contributed U.S. $86 million to WHO while the U.S. contributed 10 times that much: U.S. $893 million. Still, Beijing’s influence over the agency is pervasive. “The world’s countries recognize Beijing’s growing importance economically, politically and diplomatically, so that enables Beijing to punch far above its weight,” Wagner said.

Alternate Narrative

When it comes to potential human rights violations, the PRC has been able to create a new storyline about its treatment of the Uighur Muslims it locks up in so-called reeducation camps. Its influence came into sharp focus in July 2019 when Beijing used its political and economic clout to affect the impartiality of a U.N. body. Thirty-seven ambassadors, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, wrote a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) giving positive reviews of the PRC’s treatment of Uighurs, despite the fact that many countries have criticized Beijing for mass incarceration — up to 1 million Uighurs have been held — and for trying to destroy the detainees’ indigenous culture and religious beliefs.

The letter, addressed to the president of the Geneva-based council and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said China’s counterterrorism and deradicalization efforts were a success. Twenty-two nations, mostly Western, signed a letter days earlier urging the world body to investigate Beijing’s human rights violations in the Xinjiang region. “If [people] continue to tolerate and connive China’s infiltration into the UNHRC, people will have to be doubtful if the council can still truly remain impartial,” said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uighur Congress, according to Voice of America.

Police officers in Luoyang, China, display their smart glasses powered by artificial intelligence. Some experts fear the People’s Republic of China could export surveillance technology through its participation in international governing bodies. REUTERS

Industry Influence

PRC observers note that narrative shaping by the CCP extends far beyond health and human rights issues. “China has employed its sway within the International Civil Aviation Organization, including the presence of Chinese nationals in key leadership positions, to marginalize Taiwan by denying it permission to attend meetings,” wrote Hal Brands, a Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Brands, in an opinion piece for Bloomberg, also pointed out that after a former Chinese official was elected secretary-general of the U.N. International Telecommunication Union in 2014, that organization became far friendlier to Beijing’s Digital Silk Road project, which is meant to dominate the world’s advanced telecommunications networks and make the internet more conducive to authoritarian control.

The PRC’s three state-owned wireless carriers, China Mobile, China Unicorn and China Telecom, unveiled 5G subscription packages in October 2019. The wireless carriers advertised that they would charge customers for speed rather than data use, promising to unleash a technological revolution in which internet subscribers would pay only U.S. $45 per month.

Many scholars who study the PRC’s attempts to become a telecommunications juggernaut see something more sinister afoot than cheap, speedy internet. The PRC’s telecommunications and cyber goals are “openly geopolitical in nature,” wrote Dr. John Hemmings, an associate professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. In his March 2020 article for The National Interest magazine, Hemmings said Beijing’s expanding digital infrastructure projects across Europe and the Indo-Pacific will have “real-world effects on the people who live within such systems, impacting systems of governance and state power over data.”

It’s not the infrastructure alone that is worrisome, Hemmings said, but the training the PRC exports with it. Beijing is selling cities worldwide on its so-called Smart Cities technology. Built upon 5G networks, the technology integrates disparate information from different sources to “create a centralized data-exchange platform critical to day-to-day operations” of everything from industrial manufacturers and energy companies to government security systems, Hemmings wrote. “The premise is that a better-integrated and effectively operated city boosts economic activity and promotes sustainable growth into the future, a promising technology for many municipalities in South Asia where population growth is creating fast-growing new cities,” he said.

Beijing exports its values, too. It is training future users of the technology on how to handle big data on “public opinion management,” according to a 2018 Freedom House report. The Chinese telecommunications company ZTE, for example, helped Venezuela conduct surveillance on its citizens and control the population through a smart ID card system. The cards are linked to Chinese satellites and store location data, financial information, banking transactions and even voting records. “The government uses the cards to control access to public benefits,” Hemmings wrote.

Words of Warning

For decades, leaders in the U.S. and other Western powers tried to persuade a reticent Beijing to participate in international organizations with the idea that by socializing the PRC into the patterns of responsible governance, Chinese officials would realize they could thrive in such a system, Brands wrote. The approach had merit in the early stages. A country that once steered clear of international bodies became one of the largest contributors to U.N. peacekeeping missions. When Beijing found itself under attack in the U.N. after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, however, it began to see its role in such bodies as one of protecting the dominance of the CCP at home and projecting the party’s influence abroad, Brands wrote.

Brands told FORUM that Beijing has used its roles in the U.N. Human Rights Council and other key agencies to do two things: “First, to shield Beijing from scrutiny of its own abuses at home; and second, encouraging the promotion of perverse concepts of human rights that emphasize ‘social harmony’ and the sovereignty of authoritarian states. That is both a defensive maneuver, meant to prevent interference in China’s domestic affairs, and an offensive maneuver, meant to make the world more conducive to the spread of illiberal ideas,” he said.

Allowing Beijing to achieve these goals could come with high costs. “The United States and its democratic allies have long worked to shape a global environment where democracy is the most prevalent and strongest form of government and human rights are widely respected,” he said. “If Beijing is successful in promoting the spread of its own, illiberal norms, it would create a world in which American conceptions of human rights are weakened, democracy is less prevalent, and authoritarianism is on the ascent.”  

International Influence

The People’s Republic of China has assumed leadership roles in dozens of global governing bodies. Here are some of the most influential posts held by Chinese leaders.

Houlin Zhao, secretary-general, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

Houlin Zhao was elected to head the ITU in October 2014 with a four-year term that started in January 2015. He was reelected in November 2018 and began his second four-year term in January 2019. He is the first Chinese national to lead the ITU, a specialized agency of the United Nations. Before joining the agency, he served as an engineer in the Design Institute of the former Chinese Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.

Fang Liu, secretary-general, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

Fang Liu began her first term as secretary-general of ICAO, an agency of the United Nations, in August 2015 and was reappointed for a second three-year term that lasts until July 2021. Prior to her appointment, she served for eight years as the director of ICAO’s Bureau of Administration and Services. Before that, she spent 20 years serving in government civil aviation posts in the People’s Republic of China.

Yong Li, director-general, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

Yong Li has served as the director-general of UNIDO since June 2013. Previously, he was vice minister of the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Finance and was a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China from 2003-13. While there, he was involved in coordinating fiscal, monetary and industrial policies to support economic growth.

Qu Dongyu, director-general, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Qu Dongyu became director-general of FAO, a United Nations agency, in August 2019. Earlier, he served as the vice minister of agriculture and rural affairs in the PRC. He previously served as vice governor of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region from 2008 to 2011.

Meng Hongwei, former president, Interpol

Meng Hongwei became the first Chinese national to head the France-based international police organization Interpol in 2016. He went missing from Interpol in September 2018 after departing for a trip to China. The cause of his disappearance soon became clear: Chinese authorities had detained him on corruption charges. In January 2020, Meng received a 13½-year prison sentence for taking more than U.S. $2 million in bribes between 2005 and 2017. Prior to his election as Interpol president, he was the People’s Republic of China’s vice minister of public security.

Liqun Jin, president and chairman, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)

Liqun Jin is the inaugural president and chairman of the AIIB board of directors. Previously, he served as secretary-general of the AIIB Multilateral Interim Secretariat. He also has served as chairman of China International Capital Corp. Ltd., the People’s Republic of China’s first joint-venture investment bank.