Saturday, May 23, 2020


China has been playing the international influence game for years, but only recently have we seen how deadly the consequences can be. It’s clear that China treats the World Health Organization (WHO) as its own tool for “managing” whatever crisis situation arises. Is the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) destined to join China’s foreign policy tool belt?

In July 2004, when I was U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, I participated in a cultural excursion to a scenic village near Suzhou, China. The excursion was part of a UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. Having missed the official bus, I had to reach the village by taxi — which increased the distress I’d already caused my Chinese “chaperone” by switching hotels without informing my Chinese hosts.

After a formal welcome by the village’s local officials, we were invited to walk along the clean, relatively empty streets to canals where small boats decorated with flowers, and guided by smiling Chinese, serenely floated past us. Where were all the village residents? That mystery was solved when I peered in the window of a nearby house and saw a roomful of people crammed inside. It seemed that residents were to be kept out of sight — a Potemkin village designed to impress us with China’s deep concern for its traditional culture. 

China knows that World Heritage sites have enormous economic and cultural value, which is why it now has 55 such sites — more than any other country. These sites are invaluable for promoting China’s own version of its history and culture to tourists, being catalysts for regional economic developments, and enabling it to host the UNESCO-affiliated International Centre on Space Technologies for Cultural and Natural Heritage in Beijing. 

Under the auspices of UNESCO, China can use space technologies to examine the 1,121 World Heritage sites conveniently located all over the world. This “examination” includes assessing the conservation of sites and documenting land use — as well as anything else that the Chinese-funded-and-staffed center might like to observe from space for other (less benign?) purposes.

China hosts other UNESCO Category 2 centers (independent partner organizations) — including five more in Beijing — that work in areas like theoretical physics, engineering, geochemistry and technology. Their relationship with UNESCO gives these centers international prestige and enables them to collaborate with top scientists and institutions in other countries. For a country with global ambitions like China, the value of its UNESCO-associated organizations cannot be overstated.

Because of the important role that management and staff play in multilateral organizations, China tries to get its candidates into positions of power. By now we all know that Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ candidacy for director-general of the WHO had strong Chinese support, which explains why he has been defending that government for not revealing critical information regarding COVID-19. China is using the same tactic to increase its influence at UNESCO. 

In 2017, China tried to get its preferred candidate elected as the organization’s new director-general. After failing in that attempt, it successfully targeted the second-most powerful position at UNESCO: Current Deputy Director-General Dr. Xing Qu is an effective and experienced diplomat with close ties to China’s Communist government.

China can also significantly increase the number of Chinese nationals working at UNESCO because the number of staff from a particular country is linked to the size of its annual donations. Now that the United States has withdrawn from UNESCO, China may be its biggest funder. And China’s recent $30 million pledge to the WHO demonstrates that even more funds will be available for organizations willing to do its bidding. 

But this is not new. Chinese sympathizers at UNESCO have long been sensitive to China’s Communist government’s objectives. At a meeting I attended on freedom of the press, a list of “all” the journalists killed in one year was handed out. There were few Chinese journalists on that list, despite numerous bulletins all year from the then-director-general expressing sympathy for the deaths of Chinese journalists. When we asked about those omissions, we were told that it was, of course, a mistake — so sorry — and a new list was handed out. Try not to upset the Chinese.

And do not upset China now by demanding an independent investigation of the lab in Wuhan, criticizing the Chinese response to the coronavirus, condemning the takeover of Hong Kong, challenging its activities in the South China Sea … the list goes on. But despite aggressively playing the influence game, China is now seen as irresponsible and untrustworthy due to its deliberately misleading statements and disastrous actions following the COVID-19 outbreak. Trying to rehabilitate its international reputation will be at the top of its foreign policy agenda, and its efforts will include making strategic use of U.N. agencies such as the WHO and UNESCO.

Will China be able to achieve that goal? Not unless its Communist leadership significantly changes its behavior. Will that ever happen? Don’t hold your breath.

• Ambassador Louise Oliver was the U.S. permanent representative to UNESCO from 2004 to 2009.

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