May 14, 2019

People’s Republic of the United Nations

China’s Emerging Revisionism in International Organizations

Executive Summary

China is increasingly using its economic, political, and institutional power to change the global governance system from within. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi Jinping has become more proactive in injecting its ideological concepts into international statements of consensus and harnessing the programmatic dimensions of global governance to advance its own foreign policy strategies, such as “One Belt, One Road.” These efforts demand the attention of the United States, its allies and partners, and civil society. If unchecked, they will hasten the export of some of the most harmful aspects of China’s political system, including corruption, mass surveillance, and the repression of individual and collective rights.

This report examines China’s approach to seven organs and functions of the United Nations (U.N.): the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Human Rights Council, Peacekeeping Operations, Accreditation for Non-Governmental Organizations, the International Telecommunication Union, UNESCO, and the Office of Drugs and Crime. This examination yields the following insights into Beijing’s emerging strategy in the context of international organizations, which seeks to advance China’s interests and values through:

  • Promoting a particularist view of human rights, in which governments can cite “unique” local conditions to justify disregard for individual or minority claims. This fundamentally runs counter to the American belief that human rights belong to individuals and cannot be violated on the whims of a single government.
  • Redefining democracy in terms of so-called “economic and social rights,” rather than inalienable civil or political rights. This privileges the exigencies of state-led development over fundamental rights of association and expression, and it weakens the standing of these rights in international law.
  • Making state sovereignty inviolable and reestablishing states as the only legitimate stakeholders, with the purported aim of “democratizing” international relations and setting developing countries on equal footing in the global governance system.
  • Infusing consensus global goals with Chinese ideological terms and foreign policy strategies such as the Belt and Road.
  • Resolving political issues through bilateral negotiations, where China can use its full panoply of leverage to get its way, rather than through rules-based approaches.

These activities transcend China’s traditional defensive posture in international organizations, in which it was careful to avoid confrontation with the United States and instead directed its diplomatic resources toward boxing in Taiwan and preventing criticism of China. Today, rather than focusing on narrow and self-defined “core interests” such as isolating Taiwan or forestalling criticism of Chinese policies in Xinjiang or Tibet, Beijing now also seeks to grow its clout by extending its concepts of human rights and sovereignty to other illiberal states. In short, China, through its behavior in international organizations, is making the world safe for autocracy.

Summary of Recommendations

As the United States moves to compete with China across the diplomatic, economic, and military domains, it cannot overlook international organizations, which are a key battleground for determining which set of values will shape the 21st century. Washington must take Beijing’s approach seriously—and reengage, starting with the U.N. system. Key actions for the United States include:

Understand China’s Strategy

  • Develop a comprehensive operating picture of China’s activities within international organizations by ensuring that U.S. diplomats participate in meetings of international organizations, standing up a new fusion cell at the U.S. Department of State, and engaging more deeply with U.S. allies and partners in a dialogue on this topic.
  • Learn from Taiwan’s experience as a primary target for Beijing in international organizations to identify future tactics that China will use to advance its geopolitical agenda in other areas.
  • Coordinate with industry to identify where Chinese activities in international organizations, such as standards bodies, are creating an uneven economic playing field and positioning Beijing to dominate future technology frontiers.

Raise Awareness, Build Consensus, and Strike Back

  • Develop a common list of Chinese ideological terms with allies and partners and lead a cooperative effort to fight the inclusion of these terms in any documents guiding international organizations.
  • Uphold norms and values in the international context by systematically pointing out where Beijing’s actions depart from both international principles of acceptable conduct and China’s own stated declarations of its values and intentions.
  • Respond to Chinese human rights violations by leveraging the Magnitsky Act to sanction individual offenders.

Deepen Participation in International Organizations

  • Reengage U.N. institutions such as UNESCO, recognizing that American withdrawal from international organizations, regardless of the justification, will still leave a void for China to fill.
  • Invest in the future of U.S. multilateralism by encouraging Americans to take on leadership posts in the United Nations system and developing government fellowships to bring rising talent into the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.


The rise of China and the United States’ partial retreat from multilateralism has provoked widespread anxiety over the future of the “liberal international order.” Although imbued with a new urgency in the United States today, these questions reflect the continuation of a decades-long debate about how a more powerful China would interact with the international system. Would it seek to sweep aside existing institutions in a decisive, possibly violent bid for undisputed hegemony or endeavor to be integrated into them, adopting their built-in complex of liberal norms and practices?

There is a growing consensus that the latter prediction has proven incorrect, and more generally that this debate has presented a false dichotomy. Instead, with respect to global governance, China is pursuing a hybrid strategy in which it both unilaterally offers its own institutions (and corresponding norms) and introduces them to legacy international organizations to reshape preexisting norms and activities to conform more closely to its own interests.8 Worryingly, as China grows more ideological and authoritarian, these alterations not only cause institutions to deviate from their ostensible missions, but they also undermine universal values and U.S. interests. This is particularly true in the arenas of human rights, sustainable development, and related fields.

This report largely focuses on China’s activities within the United Nations and its specialized agencies. The reasons for this focused scope are twofold: First, as the umbrella framework for global governance, the U.N. system is often the highest-profile stage for international cooperation in any given field; second and relatedly, the volume of information on China’s activities in U.N. organizations is greater than for those at other levels. Nevertheless, China’s strategy relies crucially on its activities in regional and multilateral contexts, and many of the ideas expressed herein are applicable to institutions outside of the United Nations. This study excludes the World Trade Organization, the Bretton Woods institutions, and extensive examination of the Security Council, as many scholars have analyzed China’s behavior in these contexts. This report is far from exhaustive. It aims instead to shed light on important but oft-neglected arenas of policy contention, lest international cooperation be turned to purposes antithetical to U.S. values and core interests.

The report proceeds in the following manner: After elaborating on China’s strategy in international organizations and the opportunities and constraints it faces, it examines a number of case studies that offer insight into how China is beginning to remake several U.N. bodies in its authoritarian image. The case studies encompass bodies as diverse as the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Human Rights Council, and the International Telecommunication Union, to name a few. Finally, it concludes with a set of recommendations for how the United States, together with like-minded allies and partners, can best push back where appropriate on China’s efforts to impose its core national interests on the broader mandates of international organizations. At the end of the day, China’s incremental erosion of the global governance structure, particularly around human rights, will only be fully successful absent clear, compelling, and consistent leadership from the United States.

Read the full report.

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  1. Referred to herein as the “Belt and Road” for consistency with other CNAS products.
  2. Bjorn Ahl, “The Rise of China and International Human Rights Law,” Human Rights Quarterly, 37 (2015), 637.
  3. David Wainer, “Russia, China Veto UN Resolution Seeking Venezuela Elections,” Bloomberg, February 28, 2019, ; Timothy Heath, “China Prepares for an International Order After U.S. Leadership,”, August 1, 2018,
  4. Adapted based on a recommendation made by our colleague at CNAS, Ashley Feng.
  5. See, e.g., the collection of essays in the January/February 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs,
  6. For the former perspective, see John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New YorK: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001). For the latter, consult Alastair Iain Johnston, Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980–2000, vol. 144 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
  7. Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018, For a collection of responses covering the continuing debate over the past and future of China’s integration into the international system, see Jisi Wang et al., “Did America Get China Wrong?” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018,


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