Myanmar’s military junta has extended its state of emergency by six months, a year and a half after it overthrew the democratically elected government in a February 2021 coup. The ruling was announced on Aug. 1, the same day that Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, presented his country’s program of work for the Security Council presidency this month.
The news about Myanmar did not come up in a media briefing Zhang held at UN headquarters in New York City (see below), where he said his country would hold a signature debate to promote dialog and mediation to resolve conflict hot spots across the world. He listed the truce in Yemen — which was extended for a further two months on Aug. 2; “uncertainty” in Libya; “violence” in Haiti; and the “Ukraine crisis” as the flash points that China would use dialog, consultation and cooperation to resolve.
“Cold war mentality, power politics, have brought uncertainties to the world,” Zhang said during his briefing. He noted that the international community needs the Security Council now more than ever.
However, there is currently no dialog between the Council and the ruling junta in Myanmar. The democracy formerly enjoyed by the Southeast Asian country was iced in the 2021 coup, sparking protests in the major cities of Yangon and Naypyitaw. Min Aung Hlaing, the Burmese senior army general who ousted the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, said stability was needed before new elections could be held by August 2023. The junta had slated to remove the state of emergency by then, but now it has given itself six more months in power.
The week before China’s rotating presidency of the Security Council began, the military leaders in Myanmar executed four activists, and 41 more are scheduled for execution in days to come. If the government remains undeterred by international pressure, those actions could total 45 executions of 115 democracy advocates with capital punishments looming over their heads. Myanmar’s courts have not sentenced anyone to death in over three decades, until the execution of a former parliament member, Phyo Zeyar Thaw, and the three others killed recently.
Hours after the activists were hanged, the Chinese government released a statement saying that it “always adheres to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.”
That view contrasted with a more diluted condemnation offered by Ambassador Ronaldo Costa, Brazil’s permanent representative, on July 27, as president of the Security Council for the month.
“The members of the Security Council condemned the Myanmar military’s execution of opposition activists over the weekend,” Costa said, reading the statement. “They recalled the Secretary-General’s statement of 25 July 2022 and echoed his call for the immediate release of all arbitrarily detained prisoners, including President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Without legitimacy in Myanmar, General Hlaing and his army rely on international support from China, which has long engaged in business deals with the military government. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, had asked the Myanmar government during a visit to the country in July to push for dialog and “rational consultation” weeks before the pro-democracy campaigners were executed.
The killings have worsened the instability in the country and emboldened more armed resistance against the junta government. The violence is threatening Chinese business interests in Myanmar, but Beijing has stayed silent.
“The Council must reaffirm its mission of maintaining common security and fulfill its due responsibilities,” Zhang said, while announcing China’s signature thematic debate on Aug. 22, titled “facilitating dialog and cooperation for common security.”
Although the United States has pressed China to censure General Hlaing and his junta, the stance in the Council chamber does not suggest any resolution will be adopted soon.
“There are big differences between China and Western members of the Security Council over what to do with Myanmar since last year’s coup,” Richard Gowan, the UN director for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit entity, told PassBlue. “The US and the UK have always avoided proposing any resolutions condemning the Burmese junta, because they think that if you table such a resolution, China will inevitably veto it. And that will lead to a downward spiral in relations with the Chinese.”
While China acts disinterested in achieving common security with its next-door neighbor, it is showing concern for what it calls the “butterfly effect” of geopolitical tensions in far-off Africa.
Zhang said that China would hold an open briefing on “supporting Africa’s capacity building for sustaining peace,” on Aug. 8. Rich countries must give more than humanitarian aid and other short-term help to the continent, he noted. “We must go beyond blood transfusion and enhance their — Africa’s own blood-making function.” China has demonstrated its determination to strengthen its influence on the continent, issuing about $153 billion in loans to African countries from 2000 to 2019, before the pandemic officially struck in 2020.
Beijing has helped countries in the continent meet infrastructure-funding needs, while most of the financing provided by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries goes to social and humanitarian uses. The Chinese loans are often commercial, unlike the concessional credits from multilateral organizations. China also takes care to secure repayment, using confidentiality clauses and backing up refunding with resources.
Zhang added that he was concerned that the gains achieved in the continent were being “swept” away by the diverse crises boiling over elsewhere — including Russia’s war in Ukraine — which could threaten the stability of China’s commercial loans. China is the largest public-sector lender in Africa and its economic ties to the continent and beyond appear to be shielding China from answering difficult human-right questions, such as its alleged abuse of Uighurs, the Turkic minority in Xinjiang Province ,and the arrest of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
“Many members of the UN from all the regional groupings have very intimate economic ties with China,” Gowan said. “China has gained enormous political influence in Africa, for example. For countries that value their trade ties with Beijing, it’s simply not wise to alienate the Chinese by raising the Uighur issue in New York.”
This caution extends to Western countries, whom Gowan said were afraid that a persistent hardline stance on sticky issues like the Uighurs could drive China closer to Russia. While US diplomats at the UN have been cautious on the matter, members of the US Senate have introduced legislation to further sanction entities that do business with labor camps where the Uighurs are forced to work by the Chinese Communist Party.
In Myanmar, China’s silence could lead to the execution of 111 more pro-democracy activists. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the 10-member group that includes Myanmar, said recently it might reconsider the peace plan that Myanmar agreed on last year to end the violent unrest in the country, if the junta hangs more political prisoners. But the warning may not be enough.
“The junta’s motivation for these executions is simply survival,” the United States Institute of Peace think tank said in a July 28 publication. “The regime long ago abandoned any meaningful effort to demonstrate its value to the Myanmar people or engage in a process of de-escalation or dialogue. In defiance of international pressure and with few consequences, the generals employ fear and violence to try to beat the population into submission. As the junta’s prospects worsen, its methods — as evidenced by these executions — have become even more barbaric.”
It appears that it is up to China to find a recipe for dialog with its next-door neighbor. “Our humanity shares the same future, shares the same world,” Zhang said at his briefing. “Any country’s security is indivisible from others.”
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as their countries assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about the goals of China in August and Gowan’s assessment of the country, listen to PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, produced by Kacie Candela and Damilola Banjo, with research by Allison Lecce, on SoundCloud and Patreon. (The Chinese mission to the UN declined an interview with PassBlue.)
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, although China’s policy on protecting the sovereignty of all nations has been sorely tested by Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. 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. Born in 1960 in Jilin Province, in northeast China, Zhang is married and has a daughter. One of his favorite pastimes, he told PassBlue, is playing tennis. — STÉPHANIE FILLION
President of China: Xi Jinping
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Wang Yi
Type of Government: Authoritarian
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).
Years in the Security Council: A permanent member (along with Britain, France, Russia and the US)
Population (2022): 1,450,690,148
Per capita CO2 emission figures for 2020 (in tons): 8.2; by comparison, US: 13.7
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.