Welcome back to our monthly column, Security Council Presidency, providing insight into the United Nations Security Council member sitting in the rotating seat of the presidency every month and featuring a capsule of the country itself.
The column kicked off in July when Sweden was president, led by the country’s ambassador to the UN, Olof Skoog. We interviewed Karen Pierce, the British ambassador, for August. With original reporting from South Carolina and other sources, we profiled Nikki Haley for the United States presidency in September. (She declined to be interviewed.) We profiled Sacha Llorenty Soliz, Bolivia’s ambassador, for October.
This month, Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu of China is profiled through various sources. (He and the press office of the Chinese mission to the UN declined repeated requests for interviews.) As a permanent member of the Security Council, China is taking an increasingly active role not only in the UN but also prominently on the world scene, while carrying out its own vision of human rights. The country’s priorities and decisions of its Council presidency will be closely watched.
When Ma was appointed to the UN post, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s publication, wrote, “China should seize the ‘historic opportunity’ of a fast-changing geopolitical order to rise as a world power and fill the leadership vacuum created by US President Donald Trump’s isolationist and ‘America first’ approach.”
China’s Ambassador to the UN: Ma Zhaoxu, 55
Ambassador to UN Since: January 2018
Languages: Mandarin, English
Education: Beijing University; Ph.D. in international economy, London School of Economics (1994)
His story, briefly: Ma was born in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province and the largest city in northeastern China, in September 1963. He studied international economy at Beijing University, and just before joining the foreign service, Ma took part in a debating competition at a college in Singapore, a tournament he easily won for “his wit and eloquence,” according to the South China Morning Post. He joined the foreign affairs ministry in 1987, appointed as a political attaché for the Department of International Organizations and Conferences. He worked there for a few years and then was appointed to New York as an attaché to the third secretary of China’s mission to the UN, in 1990.
He then worked around the globe as a diplomat, posted in Britain, Australia and Geneva before moving back to New York City in 2018 as ambassador.
Ma came under the spotlight in 2010 when he declared that “there are no dissidents in China,” after a court decision to imprison the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo for 11 years on charges of subversion (he had published Charter 08, a manifesto calling China to become a democracy, signed by 303 dissident Chinese intellectuals).
The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong paper, said of Ma when he was appointed ambassador to the UN, that he promoted human rights “with Chinese characteristics” — that “human rights should be promoted and protected through dialogue and cooperation under the principle of sovereign equality and non-interference and not politicized.”
Ma is married and has one daughter.
China’s priorities in the Security Council: China will hold an open debate on Nov. 9, on the UN’s “role in strengthening multilateralism to maintain peace and security,” Ma said at a media briefing on Nov. 1 (see UN video below); and on Nov. 20 on enhancing African abilities in peace and security. (China organized a meeting on this topic during its presidency in July 2017.) China is the second-largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget and the largest donor of peacekeepers, approximately 2,500 personnel, among the Council’s permanent-five members (Britain, France, Russia and the United States). It has contingents in most African peacekeeping missions, including a 13-soldier female squad in every infantry battalion, according to Xinhua media site.
Chinese battalions have faced fierce fighting in South Sudan, most significantly when two peacekeepers were killed in 2016 in an ambush in Juba, the capital. Chinese and Ethiopian battalions also reportedly refused to leave their bases to intervene during an attack in which women were raped at a UN compound nearby.
Yet China’s presence overall in South Sudan endures, providing an example of how it operates in many parts of Africa. In South Sudan, it is developing and buying almost half of the country’s oil while not “snooping” in its political affairs, said a diplomat from the South Sudan mission to the UN. Several thousand Chinese nationals work in South Sudan, building roads, housing and schools as well as their own medical clinics, all amid a civil war. The Chinese do not impose conditions — like the protection of human rights — while operating in South Sudan, the diplomat noted, a stance that vexes the West and is repeated elsewhere in Africa where China is offering development assistance. (A review of China’s human rights is being spotlighted Nov. 6 to 9 at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Human-rights organizations are drawing attention to China’s jailing of millions of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and other abuses.)
As part of the program of work, the Security Council will travel to China Nov. 24 to 27. China is footing the bill for the permanent representatives while they travel in the country and may cover airfare for those who ask, according to information obtained by PassBlue. “To feel China’s development, the theme of the visit will be peacekeeping operations,” Ma told reporters during his press briefing, a rare chance for the media at the UN to meet with Ma.
“We’ll have a chance, hopefully, to visit the standby peacekeeping forces near Beijing,” he said. The 8,000-person force, announced by Xiao Jinping in September 2015, has been “registered” with the UN but has not been deployed. Ma said the Council members can ask officials questions about the force, but the more apparent reason to see the unit, one media site said, was for China to publicize its growing influence in UN peacekeeping as the US, under Ambassador Nikki Haley, is withdrawing financial support. (Haley is leaving her post by the end of the year, and a replacement is to be announced soon.)
Council members will also head to southern China to visit the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, bastions of prosperity: “It will be meaningful for us to go to the southern part of China, the starting point of the opening reforms, we’ll have some impression of China’s development of the past 40 years,” Ma said.
When Ma was questioned why the Council is going to China, as most Council trips go to conflict zones, and whether Ma was promoting “Security Council tourism,” he said it was not a regular Council trip but a bilateral one organized by himself and the Chinese government, or a “side event.” “The trip will be an opportunity to better understand China’s participation in peacekeeping operations in China and also to give Chinese officials and militaries opportunity to exchange with the Council member.
“Some of my colleagues rejected the idea of going to China because they’re saying they’re dealing with international peace and security issues,” he went on, “but to do that, you need to have a broad picture, to understand the world situation.” Ma said of the visit: “Diplomacy is developing in format.”
The Council will also focus on Syria, Libya, Bosnia and Herzegovina, South Sudan, Somalia and Burundi, among other topics in November.
Head of State: Xi Jinping (President)
Foreign Affairs Minister: Wang Yi
Type of Government: One-party Communist rule
Year China Joined the UN: 1945 (as the Republic of China; in 1971, the People’s Republic of China was recognized by the UN General Assembly as the only legitimate representative of China at the UN)
Closest Ally on the Council: Russia; to a lesser extent, Bolivia, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan (elected members)
Population: 1.4 billion
Memberships in Regional Groups: African Development Bank (nonregional member), Apec (Asian Pacific Cooperation), Group of 77 (G77), Organization of American States (OAS) (observer), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)
Adult Literacy Rate: 95.1 (2012)
Maternal Death Rate: 27/100,000 (2015); by comparison, the US rate is 26.4/100,000 (2017)
GDP per Capita: $8,926 (2017) (world: $11,000)
Emissions (tons of CO2/year, per capita): 7 (world average, 5); the US, 17
Total Contributions to UN Operating Budget (rounded): $192 million annually
Total Contributions to UN Peacekeeping Budget (rounded for six-month interim amount): approximately $680 million
Electric Power Consumption (per capita): 4 kWh/year (world average: 3kWh/year)
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.