BEIJING — As world leaders gather in New York for the annual UN General Assembly, China’s rising superpower is also focusing on another UN body that meets across the Atlantic Ocean in Geneva. .

Chinese diplomats speak out and pressure others at an ongoing session of the Human Rights Council to thwart a possible call for a closer look at what it calls its anti-extremism campaign in the Xinjiang, following a United Nations report into abuses against Uyghurs and other largely Muslim ethnic groups in China’s western border region.

The concurrent meetings illustrate China’s divided approach to the United Nations and its growing global influence. Beijing is looking to the UN, where it can count on the support of countries it has befriended and in many cases helped financially, as a counterbalance to US-led blocs such than the Group of Seven, which have become increasingly hostile to China.

“China sees the UN as an important forum it can use to advance its interests and strategic goals and to reform the world order,” said Helena Legarda of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

While presenting the United Nations as a model of multilateralism, China rejects criticism or decisions that the ruling Communist Party considers contrary to its interests. Its diplomats hit back at a report released last month by the UN human rights office raising concerns about possible ‘crimes against humanity’ in Xinjiang – vowing to suspend cooperation with the office and lambasting what he described as a Western plot to undermine China’s rise.

China had lobbied to block the report on Xinjiang, delaying its release for more than a year. Eventually, the news got out – but just minutes before UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet left office.

Like the United States, China feels a certain freedom to ignore UN institutions whenever it chooses: the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Human Rights Council in 2018, accusing it of of anti-Israeli bias. The Biden administration took a leap back this year and made defending Israel a priority in the 47-member body.

Much like the United States, China is leveraging its influence to get its way – effectively thwarting a United Nations World Health Organization investigation into whether China was the birthplace of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ken Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Chinese President Xi Jinping was trying to redefine what human rights are, in part by making economic development a key criterion. China, Roth said, “more than any other government in the past, is trying to undermine the UN human rights system” – by pressuring UN officials, hitting back at witnesses and trying to bribe governments.

“One of their top priorities right now — maybe after Taiwan — is to avoid condemnation by the Human Rights Council,” Roth said. The self-governing island of Taiwan is claimed by China as its sovereign territory, an issue the Beijing government is vocal about internationally.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University in China, said defending the UN’s role in maintaining international order does not mean that China agrees with all organs of the UN, citing the study on the origins of COVID-19 and the recent report on Xinjiang.

“When the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights publishes such a report, in the eyes of China, it is the same as all organizations in the world, whether official or private, that defame China,” Shi said.

But China does not want its resentment of the rights office, which reports to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to spill over into its deep relationships with other parts of the global body that deal with refugees, climate, internet, satellites, world hunger, atomic weapons, energy and much more.

China holds power as one of five members of the Security Council with veto power, helping it build relationships with the United States and others who needed China’s support for past resolutions on Iran and North Korea.

That influence has waned somewhat with the overall deterioration of US-China relations, Shi said. Subsequently, China and Russia vetoed a US-backed resolution in May to impose new sanctions on North Korea.

Under Xi, who came to power 10 years ago, China expanded its involvement in the UN early on, shifting mainly from international development to political, peace and security issues, Legarda said.

She noted how China has had its concepts and language incorporated into UN resolutions and used the UN system to promote a “Global Development Initiative” proposed by Xi in a video address to the Assembly. general last year.

“It reflects China’s more assertive and ambitious foreign policy under Xi,” Legarda said.

China has entered a diplomatic vacuum created by a lack of American leadership, said Daniel Warner, a political analyst based in Geneva. Former President Donald Trump has shunned many international institutions, Warner said, and successor Joe Biden has been preoccupied with domestic issues.

The Chinese hold the highest positions in three of the UN’s 18 specialized agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Industrial Development Organization and the International Telecommunication Union, where the United States presented a candidate to succeed outgoing leader Houlin Zhao. A Chinese official headed the International Civil Aviation Organization until last year.

For China, it’s a matter of prestige as much as influence, Warner said.

“The United States and Western countries were very involved in the first United Nations,” he said. “China doesn’t want to have that kind of leadership. They don’t talk about liberal values, but they want to make sure their interests are defended in the UN system.

Chinese diplomats led a joint statement – which they said was backed by 30 countries including Russia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela – that blasted the ‘misinformation’ behind the report. UN on Xinjiang and the “erroneous conclusions” drawn there. And China’s ambassador to Geneva said Beijing could no longer cooperate with the human rights office, without specifying how.

Sarah Brooks, a China expert with the International Society for Human Rights’ advocacy group in Geneva, said China could cut its funding for the office – which recently amounted to $800,000 per month. year, much less than Western countries which give tens of millions.

Still, Brooks said it would be a “big blow” if funding from China were to stop, in part because many countries appreciate and support the causes Beijing helps pay for.

“The optics are really damaging,” she said. “You have a country that says, ‘Hi, I want to be responsible, but I have such thin skin… I’m still going to go after the organization that wrote it.'”


Keaten reported from Geneva. Edith M. Lederer of the United Nations contributed to this report.