China’s 50 Years at UN: What About Its ‘Rights-Free’ Development?

Beijing’s approach of late has been scaling down the norms of human rights while playing up sovereign rights.

5 min read
China’s 50 Years at UN: What About Its ‘Rights-Free’ Development?

The year 2021 is a truly remarkable one for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as it marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the 50th anniversary of the restoration of Beijing’s lawful rights in the United Nations. The Nationalist government of China (the Republic of China then) had been an original signatory to the UN Charter in 1945, and even after the formation of the PRC in 1949, the Republic of China (Taiwan now) had continued to hold the China seat.

Nonetheless, on 25 October 1971, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758 (‘Resolution on Admitting Peking’) with an overwhelming majority (76 in favour, 35 opposed, 17 abstentions) and decided to recognise the PRC as the only legitimate representatives of China. Certainly, the historic event made the UN more universal, representative, credible and authoritative. And five decades later, the decision continues to be hailed as “a victory for the Chinese people and the global community” by President Xi.


China & UN: From Reluctance to Readiness

China had held scepticism towards the UN, and even absolute antagonism during the Korean War. Since 1971, Beijing’s engagement in the UN had been cautious and equally restrained. It is perhaps the ‘victim mentality’ (shouhaizhe xintai) stemming from a century of humiliation (1839 - 1949) that influenced Beijing’s policy preferences, including non-participation in the UNSC votes vis-à-vis peacekeeping operations. Also, China perceived the UN as a cockpit where two superpowers are haggling over advancing their own interests. Nevertheless, China’s early UN participation, as Samuel Kim reasoned, pursued ‘symbolic activism’ and ‘substantive passivism’.

However, the ‘reforms and opening up’ policy partly played a role for China in shifting gears to integrate into the UN system, albeit on the socioeconomic front, and not necessarily on political or security problems.

Likewise, the June Fourth Incident 1989 had opened new domestic debates in China, and later, international condemnation and subsequent sanctions followed Beijing’s botched and brutal treatment of protestors at Tiananmen Square.

In 1990, China sent a team of five military observers for the first time, but it did not really scale up its contribution of blue helmets (UN peacekeeping troops) – rather the number remained under hundred for the next decade. Nevertheless, since the 16th Party Congress of the CPC, and amidst the ‘peaceful rise’ slogan, China’s support for the UN has grown extensively – both in terms of financial commitments and deployment of peacekeeping troops. The approved budget for the UN Peacekeeping operations for the fiscal year 2021-22 is $6.38 billion, of which 15.21% is funded by China, while the US contributes 27.89%. Again, China’s assessed contribution to the UN regular budget ($3.23 billion) in 2021 is 12%, whereas the US provides 22%.


China's Contribution to Peacekeeping Missions

According to China’s latest position paper, 50,000 peacekeepers were dispatched to nearly 30 UN peacekeeping missions since 1990, and 2,200 Chinese peacekeepers are currently serving as blue helmets. It has set up an 8,000-strong standby force and a 300-member permanent police squad for UN peacekeeping missions. These contributions not just enable Beijing to exert political/diplomatic influence, including setting standards for air travel, telecommunications and agriculture, but also leverage Beijing’s position to change the system within.

Collectively, the elite P5 members have employed their veto privileges 215 times in the history of the organisation. Through 2021, China cast its 16th UN Security Council veto, while the US has vetoed 81 resolutions since 1971. Although China had cast its first (also solo) veto on the resolution of ‘admission of new members Bangladesh’ in 1972, other 15 vetoes were only recorded in last two decades – 13 of these involved additional veto votes from Russia, with ten vetoes concerning the issue of Syria.


What Factors Are Driving the Engagement?

Indeed, China’s contributions have strengthened the UN. But, what are the motives driving Beijing to play a leadership role — contrary to its long-held foreign policy tenets – ‘keeping low profile’? Today, China is the largest trading partner of over 120 countries. Playing with the UN rules and on peacekeeping turf thus protects its overseas interests. Furthermore, the ‘One-China’ policy has also been a prime motivation. In 1997 and 1999, China vetoed resolutions that would extend peacekeeping support to Guatemala and Macedonia as their diplomatic relations with Taiwan “infringed upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Of late, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies reduced to 15, whittled down from 22 in 2016.

Apart from gaining operational benefit/exposure for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that had last fought in Vietnam War (1979), China had always sought to gloss its image and held a desire to be seen as a ‘responsible power’.

Also, multilateralism is a crucial factor in Beijing’s engagement with the UN. China, according to its official document, has always “(a)dvocated multilateralism and upheld the UN’ central role in international affairs… (It) has always been committed to promoting reform and improvement of multilateral institutions to uphold the authority and effectiveness of the U.N.”

However, Beijing is said to be swaying the system of international organisation in its favour by its growing visibility and influence, stemming from President Xi Jinping’s assertive foreign policy. Today, China heads four of the 15 UN-affiliated agencies, and with considerable power, its officials are at odds with several democratic processes, including a battle with NGOs. Notably, President Biden has called this moment a contest between democracies and autocratic governments.


Can China Really Replace Western Values?

Amid the ‘ill-thought-out’ retreat by the Trump administration, and to some extent the European Union (EU), the balance of power has apparently shifted at the UN. While China and its alignment with Russia are gradually gaining ground against the West in the global human rights system, Beijing has also sought to slash the budget for human rights monitoring. It had previously declined to schedule visits by many ‘special rapporteurs’ who review and monitor the accountability of UN member states on human rights issues. Furthermore, China maintains a policy of not commenting, condemning or criticising human rights practices in other countries — irrespective of the gravity of the violations.

Indeed, Beijing’s approach in recent years has been seen as a scaling down of the norms of human rights while playing up sovereign rights.

Yet, the anxiety that China would replace Western liberal values seems to be slightly premature and hasty. President Biden’s plan to provide financial contributions, as well as an attempt in getting US officials into top UN positions and fight the bias against Israel across the UN system are steps in the right direction. The US has to watch the space beyond the Chinese-Russian ‘tactical collaboration’ or ‘P2’, and a strong consolidation of the ‘P3’ (the US, France, and the UK); the Biden administration’s recent budget proposal will serve US interests in countering China’s increasing influence at the UN.

To conclude, Beijing’s increasing engagement over half a century has been rightly applauded, and its overall contribution apparently serves the purpose of the organisation and upholds the principles of the UN Charter.

Still, it puts massive emphasis on state-centrism – insouciantly ignoring the fact that individual sovereignty can also be subjected to abuse by the state itself.

And frequently, the tendency of Beijing prioritising development over human rights, or as Sophie Richardson phrased, “China’s push for rights-free development”, potentially makes the UN’s normative progression seem largely anachronistic.

(Md Yasin is a PhD candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University and currently a visiting research scholar at Harvard University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:   China   United Nations 

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