When China last took the reins of the Security Council, in March 2020, the country was just starting to control the pandemic at home, while the virus was spreading rapidly abroad, all the way to United Nations headquarters in New York City. Yet China refused to talk about the pandemic during that stint, and the Council went nearly silent during its last two weeks, as the UN partly closed and the Council slowly figured out ways to work online.
“In many ways, it was very disappointing in that previous period, when its presidency occurred at the same time as the opening of the pandemic — that it didn’t feel able to actively put that issue onto the agenda to generalize about health pandemics,” said Rosemary Foot, an emeritus professor at Oxford University and the author of the book “China, the UN, and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image.”
This time around, China is not ignoring the pandemic but addressing it in its own way. On May 19, it is organizing an open debate in the Council on post-Covid-19 recovery in Africa. Africa is where China has tried to exert more influence in the last few years through, among other things, development projects like its Belt and Road initiative.
As president of the Council during May, China will also focus on peacekeeping and multilateralism. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to take part in a May 7 open debate on upholding multilateralism and the UN-centered international system. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi will preside over the meeting virtually.
Raising eyebrows in diplomatic circles is a May 17 Arria-formula meeting organized by China — an informal gathering that enables broader participation among UN member states — on “the impact of emerging technologies on international peace and security.”
In a press briefing (below) on May 3, Ambassador Zhang Jun said the meeting would look at “how in the coming days, we can get the United Nations better equipped with new technologies, how we can facilitate the cooperation between and among member states, with new technologies, and how to prevent the misuse and abuse of new technologies by those groups like terrorists for ulterior purposes.”
China tends to be conservative about which topics belong before the Council and which do not. For example, it has repeatedly opposed the idea that anything related to climate change belongs there. And forget human rights. So a number of Council diplomats said they were surprised by the “new technologies” meeting.
In a draft concept note for the session, obtained by PassBlue, China writes: “While acknowledging the positive effects of emerging technologies, we should not neglect their adverse impacts. The competition among countries in those emerging areas will reshape the global security order and security governance. The militarization of emerging technologies could lower the threshold of warfare, trigger arms races and exacerbate regional tensions.”
It’s unclear who will brief the Council on the matter, and China is still apparently looking for a country to co-sponsor the session. “It’s an important meeting on an interesting issue,” a Council diplomat told PassBlue. “We’re just trying to work out what China is seeking from this meeting.”
The diplomat added that when it comes to new technologies, like facial recognition, China is uncomfortable with a multistakeholder approach and would rather have governments themselves decide how the world should use such technology, which may be why China picked the Council to discuss it — emphasizing that it is a sovereign matter. “It’s not just China, but Russia uses the threat of terrorism to justify repressive measures within their own countries,” the diplomat said.
Peter Irwin, a senior program officer for advocacy at the Uyghurs Human Rights Project, in Washington, said about the tech meeting: “If someone doesn’t know about the situation in the Uighur region, then it’s a positive step. But the way I read it, when China says it wants cooperation with the UN system, is that Beijing wants to make sure that respect for human rights doesn’t undermine their policies. They want to push forward their own supposed counterterrorism narrative within the UN system, one that doesn’t come close to respecting Uighur rights.” (PassBlue uses a variant spelling of the ethnic group.)
On a more urgent problem, China doesn’t plan to discuss the coup-related crisis in Myanmar in the Council.
Ambassador Zhang said, “I think at this moment, my understanding is that the Council is mainly emphasizing or supporting the diplomatic efforts of Asean countries and to support Asean to play a constructive role in this regard.” (Asean stands for Association of Southeast Asian Nations.)
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or other high-level diplomats as they assume the presidency of the Security Council. This column follows ones this year on Tunisia, Britain, the US and Vietnam.
To hear an original audio analysis with more details on China’s presidency, with insights from experts, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, at Google Podcasts, Patreon, SoundCloud, iHeart Radio or Amazon Prime Music. (Excerpts of the podcast are below.)
China’s Ambassador to the UN: Zhang Jun, 60
Ambassador to UN Since: July 2019
Language: Mandarin, English
Education: Bachelor’s in law, Jilin University, China. Master’s in law, Hull University, Britain
His story, briefly: When Zhang became ambassador in New York City in July 2019, China was signaling major changes 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. He was more outgoing than his immediate predecessor, joking during a meeting of the Security Council, when his cellphone rang by mistake, “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. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1984, serving at the UN in New York City 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 returned to the UN as China has been striving to reach the top of the global ladder, while shying away from intervening in other countries’ internal affairs, especially on human rights. While there are similarities to what Zhang faced during his first stint at the UN, he is now in charge of implementing China’s foreign policy at the world body. That includes goals he helped articulate as a party leader.
From 2002 to 2004, he 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.
He moved to the Netherlands in 2007 as China’s envoy, and until 2012 was also his country’s permanent representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. 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.
Born in 1960 in Jilin Province, in northeast China, Zhang is married and has a daughter.
For a second time in the last year, China’s mission to the UN did not follow up on PassBlue’s repeated requests for an interview. Below is an interview with Irwin of the Uyghurs Human Rights Project.
Can you describe how China’s lobbying in the Security Council may differ from its lobbying in the Human Rights Council? How does China approach different UN agencies when it comes to the Uighurs? I think they approach it in similar ways at the Security Council, because China, of course, is a permanent member and vetoes any kind of real action by the UN in general. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, for example, has said absolutely nothing about the Uighurs issue. . . . The fact that the highest-ranking official at the UN has basically been silent on the issue speaks loudly in terms of China’s influence within the body. But because in the way in which they frame the issue, I think the world knows what’s happening in the Uighurs region . . . more or less.
The region is fairly closed, but researchers, NGOs, journalists and others have been able to access and pull in information showing that crimes against humanity or genocide are taking place. The way in which China framed it, they’d simply say that human rights violations are not taking place and that there are no human rights abuses taking place in the Uighur region at all. So that’s sort of the starting point for a lot of these discussions; they say, ‘It’s not about human rights, we’ve brought people out of poverty, we have all these programs, which are in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and this is part of our counterterrorism counter extremism policy,’ which is just kind of rubbish in our opinion. International experts have been clear that it has really nothing to do with counterterrorism, and even if it was an approach or a method of counterterrorism, detaining 10 percent of the population is, of course, just completely bizarre and totally absurd, and it’s not going to solve the actual problem.
We often hear that China pressures other countries where it has investments to speak positively about China’s human-rights situations. How do you think China words its position when it lobbies countries on this specific issue at the UN? You think these economic levers are very important for China, not just in Xinjiang but kind of everywhere in terms of what they’re doing. They have been a bully for a long time. They do this often in terms of the state’s position on, for example, the recognition of Taiwan. They use their [influence] in these asymmetrical bilateral relationships to push states to do what they want.
With regard to the UN, though, I think the reason that some of these allied governments are supporting China is because sometimes they need support themselves. So look at Venezuela and other countries, for example. When there were calls for an investigation, these countries wanted to have China’s support down the road . . . within the UN more broadly. One small example is Sri Lanka, where there have been calls for an investigation by UN officials into war crimes — essentially what’s actually happening in the country — and China pushed hard against this, of course, not because they care much about what’s happening in Sri Lanka, but because they care a lot about potentially setting a precedent for the investigative powers of UN officials. So you see this playing out on a number of levels.
How do you perceive China’s handling of the crisis in Myanmar, especially in light of what’s happening in Xinjiang? They’re not thinking about the situation in Myanmar and making statements about state sovereignty without thinking about what they’re doing in the Uighur region. They understand very well that there have been monitoring missions on Myanmar that have said atrocities have been taking place. China’s very sensitive about the UN potentially turning on them if they’re not careful. They don’t want to set a precedent. It’s something we’ve been watching very carefully, and we’ll continue to keep watching their relationship there. We’re essentially expecting them to do everything they can to block any kind of UN investigation, because everything they do with regard to Myanmar comes back to what they want to see happen or not happen with regard to the UN’s approach to the Uighur region.
Head of State: Xi Jinping
Foreign Affairs Minister: Wang Yi
Type of Government: One-party Communist Republic
Year 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). China is one of the five permanent members, with Britain, France, Russia and the US.
This article was updated to reflect China’s original status at the UN.
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.