Over the past year China’s presence at the United Nations got suddenly noticed. It may be its more outgoing ambassador, Zhang Jun, its lobbying against human rights, its accession to high-level roles or the disengagement of the United States — perhaps all of the above that has drawn attention. But just as the country assumes a bigger place on the international stage, it is hobbled by the coronavirus crisis, which has challenged Beijing’s ability to reign internationally by affecting its image, economy and capacity.
“We all know that we are living in a world full of uncertainties,” as Zhang recently noted.
UN diplomats agree that China is likely to deliver a highly professional performance as president of the Security Council in March; it is a routine exercise for one of the five permanent members (the others being Britain, France, Russia and the US). China is focusing on issues that the country generally prioritizes at the UN, starting with the need to preserve multilateralism, the topic of an open debate to be held on March 19. Zhang cited the Iran nuclear deal as a product of multilateralism, adding that it was “unfortunate one big brother withdrew from it.”
China has invited guests to speak at the March 19 debate, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres; the president of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande; and the president of the International Court of Justice, Abdulqawi Yusuf.
Another priority will be combating terrorism in Africa, the subject of a session on March 11, and the safety of peacekeepers, to be discussed on March 24.
Then there is what the Chinese call the “political settlement” of conflicts in places like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. In a briefing with the news media, below, Ambassador Zhang referred to the need for solutions, saying, “We can’t kill all the problems but we all can do more.” Given China’s recent history of blocking resolutions on the war in Syria, including access to humanitarian aid, it will also be on the receiving end of questions from Council members.
China’s top priority this month is peacekeeping, a field in which it has become more involved in recent years for strategic reasons, said Courtney Fung, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong. “China’s participation and ongoing commitment to UN peacekeeping allows [it] to sell the image of China as being a great state that is very different from all of the great powers,” Fung told PassBlue.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the presidency of the Security Council. This column follows ones on Britain, South Africa, the US, Bolivia, China, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, France, Germany and Russia, among others.
To hear an original audio analysis with more details on China’s Council presidency, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, at Apple Podcasts, Patreon, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play. (Excerpts of the podcast are also below.)
China’s Ambassador to the UN: Zhang Jun, 59
Ambassador to UN Since: July 2019
Language: Mandarin, English
Education: Bachelor’s in law (LL.B.), Jilin University, China. Master’s in law (LL.M), Hull University, Britain
His story, briefly: When Zhang took office in New York in July 2019, China was signaling a change in its approach to the UN. He arrived a few months before the annual opening session of the General Assembly, after serving one year as assistant minister of foreign affairs in Beijing, and was more outgoing than his immediate predecessor. During a meeting of the Security Council, for example, his cellphone rang by mistake and he jokingly said, “Maybe I need to change my vote.”
Zhang, a longtime member of the Communist Party, has been prominent in the Politburo and at the forefront of China’s economic diplomacy.
Zhang was trained in law and first joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1984, serving at the UN in New York from 1990 to 1994. In 1990, the Tiananmen Square protests had just erupted and China was trying to reduce the UN’s focus on individual regimes. Over the next five years, Chinese diplomats defeated 12 human-rights resolutions critical of the country’s record. China was reforming its economy, which was starting to boom, and it gave some swing countries economic incentives to vote on its side.
Zhang has returned to New York as China aims to reach the top rung of the global ladder — while also shying away from intervening in other countries’ internal affairs, especially on human rights. While there are similarities to what Zhang faced during his first New York stint, he is now the person in charge of implementing China’s foreign policy at the UN. That includes goals he helped articulate as a party leader.
From 2002 to 2004, Zhang was deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Organizations and Conferences, having previously served two years as deputy director of the Administration Committee of the Ningbo Economic and Technological Development Zone, in Zhejiang Province.
He moved to the Netherlands in 2007 to work as China’s ambassador and was also his country’s permanent representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons until 2012. That year, he was appointed director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Economic Affairs, ascending to assistant minister of foreign affairs in 2018.
In a 2017 paper, Zhang wrote: “On many important occasions, based on China’s own development experience and ideas, President Xi [Jinping] took the pulse of the world economy and provided a holistic prescription with distinct Chinese features addressing both symptoms and root causes.”
The paper praised China’s approach to the global economy and its “win-win” partnerships abroad. That is without a doubt the vision that Zhang, a strong advocate of China’s global Belt and Road initiative, intends to bring to the UN.
Born in 1960 in Jilin Province, in northeast China, Zhang is married and has a daughter. He responded to questions from reporters and civil society groups in two separate meetings on March 2, at the UN. At the media briefing, he mostly discussed the coronavirus, even though he said he wasn’t going to do that.
At the civil society session, he covered more wide-ranging topics and stressed his goal of “transparency.” He took many questions, including by a Muslim Uighur woman regarding the detention of fellow Uighurs in Xinjiang and, personally, 93 missing relatives of hers. In response, he said, “Your comments are full of bias” and the issue is not related to human rights but a “global effort in fighting against the terrorism.”
His remarks have been edited for space and clarity.
Q: The daily count of new cases of the coronavirus in China is lowering, as many parts of the world are facing the possibility of an outbreak. What can we draw from China’s experiences? China’s fight against the coronavirus is indeed making huge progress and the situation is really becoming stable. The situation is developing in the right direction, getting better and better. We all know that in two months’ time, an outbreak posed threats to people’s lives and health in China. We made unprecedented efforts and took strict, comprehensive measures, and the whole world has witnessed the strong determination of the Chinese government and the strength and power of a united Chinese nation. We have witnessed many stories of dedication of medical workers; ordinary people, including journalists. It’s based on that we are able to make progress. The numbers really tell the truth on what we have achieved. As of March 1, new confirmed cases have decreased to a little less than 200.
Q: Is China planning on restricting entry of citizens from countries like Italy or Iran? The situation in China remains challenging, we are doing whatever we can in saving lives. We have serious cases in China. What I can reassure you is that China does not adopt a double standard approach toward any other country, we are supportive of efforts made by other countries. We have received a lot of assistance and help from those countries. We do not distinguish citizens of other countries from Chinese [citizens]. We treat all those people on an equal footing.
Below is an excerpt from the UN-Scripted interview with Courtney Fung, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong. To hear the full interview, please tune in to our podcast, UN-Scripted.
Q: How do you think the coronavirus is going to affect China’s presidency and China’s foreign affairs ministry? I would imagine that the foreign ministry has a lot on its plate in terms of public diplomacy and communication regarding the coronavirus. That said, it is the foreign ministry that provides the majority of the staff at China’s permanent mission at the UN. That staff will be working through China’s monthlong rotation as UN Security Council president. China is extremely organized when it comes to being prepared for its presidency. It takes this work extremely seriously. So frankly, my wager is I doubt that coronavirus COV-ID19 is going to [get in the way of] their preparations for business in New York.
But I think Beijing does have a bit of an uphill battle because they’re going to have to overcome recent criticism of its willingness to veto UN Security Council intervention in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Eight out of China’s 13 UN Security Council vetoes have been cast on this conflict alone (of course, there was a veto at the end of the year regarding Venezuela). Now, we understand that the nine remaining members of the Council have come out and asked the UN secretary-general to make some response regarding the ongoing crisis in northwestern Syria. That’s been in part because China has been a quite effective Security Council player and sort of keeping that item on the agenda for discussion but not on the agenda for actual action. I think as much as China has a positive agenda, it has to overcome the rather negative press about what it has been doing at the Council.
Q: China tries to exert influence on UN peacekeeping operations. That’s a topic you specialize in. Why has China made a strategic decision to invest in peacekeeping in recent years? I guess the answer to that question [is that] it is largely seen as a global public good. China’s participation and ongoing commitment to UN peacekeeping allows it to sell the image of China as a great state that is very different from all of the great powers, and [to point to the fact that] China is a real contributor to the UN peacekeeping system and actually quite a consistent contributor. If we think about ways to contribute to peacekeeping, there’s policy design and discussion, and China wants to discuss with true contributors its concerns about capacity building and safety. There’s mandate, design and resolution, and China has become increasingly active on politicking, not always a penholder but increasingly active in terms of inserting language and removing language that they don’t view as being helpful for peacekeeping missions. They’ve been on the record repeatedly talking about their concerns regarding these Christmas tree resolutions, resolutions that we just keep adding like another ornament, another desire, another ambition for these peacekeeping missions, leaving them with mandates that are virtually impossible, if not internally contradictory to try and achieve.
And of course, there’s financing, and China is now the second largest contributor to the UN regular budget and it likes to pay on time. There’s also the last lever that in many ways is the most delicate to try and achieve — to try and get troops to actually deploy out of these different countries, and trying to get a very proud reputation as a true contributor, especially stepping up at a time when many other states were shunning participation in UN peacekeeping. By showing its commitment, China’s able to say that it is a responsible great power, and it’s responsible in ways that the United States, Great Britain, France are not. China’s current contributions are more than the rest of the [five permanent Security Council members’] combined. But we have to bear in mind that China’s true contributions to peacekeeping only occur through the UN platform. China does not have an alternate means, for example, like NATO, like an EU rapid reaction force. All of China’s efforts are targeted through the UN.
Q: China is now the second-largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping operations’ budget. In one of your papers, you note this sort of mature, mutually beneficial relationship between the UN and China. But do you think it has triggered a reluctance, from the secretary-general and even other member states, to criticize China? That’s a very interesting question because I read a lot of the analysis and the press coming out about this particular secretary-general’s very quiet diplomacy regarding questions of human rights. Most recently, Secretary-General Guterres has come out the last couple of days talking quite forcefully about the needs of human rights and in particular about the need for women’s rights. . . . I do think other permanent members of the Council are unafraid to share their views publicly about China, to air their disappointment when they feel that China has not been a team player that they hope for in advancing international peace and security in ways that they would desire. So when China is viewed as holding back resolutions or being a finicky negotiator, there has been a very steady stream of reports of criticism regarding that.
Head of State: Xi Jinping
Foreign Affairs Minister:Wang Yi
Type of Government: One-party Communist Republic
Year Joined the UN:1945
Years on the Security Council: One of the five permanent members of the Security Council (with Britain, France, Russia and the US)
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
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.