When China curtailed political freedoms in Hong Kong this summer, two rival declarations circulated at the United Nations Human Rights Council. One, drafted by Cuba and commending Beijing’s move, won the backing of 53 nations. Another, issued by the U.K. and expressing concern, secured 27 supporters.
China’s show of strength was just the latest diplomatic triumph in Beijing’s drive to sway the system of international organizations in its direction. As the Trump administration stepped back from many parts of the multilateral order established after World War II, China has emerged a chief beneficiary, intensifying a methodical, decadelong campaign.
Beijing is pushing its civil servants, or those of clients and partners, to the helm of U.N. institutions that set global standards for air travel, telecommunications and agriculture. Gaining influence at the U.N. permits China to stifle international scrutiny of its behavior at home and abroad. In March, Beijing won a seat on a five-member panel that selects U.N. rapporteurs on human-rights abuses—officials who used to target Beijing for imprisoning more than a million Uighurs at so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang.
Washington has recently attempted to counter this effort at the U.N., cajoling and wooing countries around the world. Those efforts, hamstrung by damaged relationships with partners and allies, have had a limited impact so far.
China’s success raises a conundrum for the U.S. and its allies. After the Soviet Union fell, these nations expected the U.N. to become a mechanism to promote democracy and human rights. Now, in a dynamic increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War, Beijing’s clout at the U.N. instead helps the Chinese Communist Party legitimize its claim to be a superior alternative to Western democracies.