This spring, President Donald Trump declared that he would halt U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, previously more than $400 million annually—and he announced this right in the midst of a global pandemic. A week later, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged another $30 million—which would nowhere near make up for the shortfall (not to mention that China still owes the organization $60 million in membership dues, an amount the WHO expects to get later this year). But the moment was a clear case in point for China’s success at checkbook diplomacy, in which the amount matters less than the message: You can’t count on the U.S., but you can count on us.
America was, until Trump ordered a review of the contributions, the single largest state funder of the WHO—China was contributing just over a 10th of what the U.S. was. Yet for years now, even before Trump accused the WHO of being too “China-centric,” American officials worried that China kept somehow buying more influence, with less money, around the world.
“The Chinese give as little money as they can get away with,” Rear Admiral Kenneth Bernard, who previously served as a political adviser to the director-general of the World Health Organization, and as a special assistant for biodefense to President George W. Bush, told me. “They give as little money as will buy influence.”
“This isn’t about being fair,” he added. “This is about winning.”
The WHO isn’t the only example. Last year, the United States gave more than $670 million to the United Nations’ operating budget, while China gave almost $370 million—yet Chinese nationals currently head four of the body’s 15 specialized agencies. “No other nation leads more than one,” Melanie Hart, a senior fellow and the director of China policy at the Center for American Progress, told me. “Making contributions is one thing, but [Chinese personnel] show up big, and they push.”
China’s muscle-flexing is also occurring at a time in which the U.S. president has expressed disinterest in, or outright contempt for, international organizations, canceling or suspending funding for some, and calling it into question for others. The most powerful country in the world is perhaps entitled to take this posture—after all, U.S. presidents have ignored or sidestepped international organizations for decades, not least in launching bombing campaigns over Kosovo in the 1990s and Iraq in the 2000s. But China clearly sees such organizations not as irrelevant hindrances but as convenient vehicles for expanding its global influence. The Trump administration, meanwhile—though the U.S. appointed a special envoy to counter “malign influences” of China and others at the UN toward the beginning of the year, and finally announced a nomination for America’s years-vacant seat on the WHO’s executive board—has largely ceded the field.
Besides Beijing’s splashy but meager contribution to the WHO, in the past week China sent a representative to an EU-led pledging conference to find a vaccine. The United States declined to participate. In a phone call with reporters, a senior administration official repeatedly sidestepped questions about why, and insisted that “our cooperation with European partners continues to be extremely robust.”
The pattern repeats itself all over the planet. The U.S. still gives billions in foreign aid every year, and the funding touches all facets of life in other countries including public health, military training, sanitation, and women’s rights. But China is a shiny relative newcomer in many developing countries that have come to take U.S. assistance for granted. In the past 15 years China has been plowing money into megaprojects like airports and dams—strategic and flashy investments, unavoidable monuments to China’s ambitions and staying power. And the funding doesn’t tend to come with the same kinds of pro-transparency and human-rights-protection strings attached to American aid, which makes it more attractive to corrupt or authoritarian governments. So even if China doesn’t give more, it advertises better.
Chinese leaders also present their own country as a voice for the developing world against the dominant Western global powers. “They were the big players” in trying to get the World Health Organization to focus on developing countries’ issues, David Hohman, who formerly served as Deputy Director of the Office of Global Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, told me. “Fortunately in WHO you don’t vote on things, but if you ever did, [China has] the votes … It was a big advantage to them.”
Through its seat on the United Nations Security Council, China’s Communist government has had the ability to thwart other members’ ambitions for decades. But only recently has it begun to flex this muscle. In the past 15 years, China has vetoed 11 Security Council resolutions, more than five times as many as in the preceding 15 years. (It still has not caught up to the United States, which vetoed 18 resolutions over the same 30-year period.)
Meanwhile, Beijing is working to rewrite the rules of the liberal system America once prided itself on having built. China has gotten two resolutions through the UN’s Human Rights Council, Hart explained in written testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission this spring, one “suggesting that human rights must be balanced with economic development needs,” and another asking that cultural contexts be taken into account when considering human rights standards. Hart told me that “the U.S. currently doesn’t care about the UN Human Rights Council. China does.” (The U.S. withdrew from that body in 2018 when then–UN Ambassador Nikki Haley accused it of being biased against Israel.) And the watering-down of international standards, Hart says, creates “maneuvering room” for authoritarians around the world.
“It is not a good idea to let dictators run UN agencies,” said Bernard, who retired from the U.S. Public Health Service. “Not because it’s particularly China or not China. It’s because the constituencies for those issues get hurt.” China is currently holding up to 1 million Uighur Muslims in what it calls “re-education” camps in conditions that rights groups and other governments have condemned.
“If any government other than China was holding a million Muslims arbitrarily, I think we can reasonably assume we would already be well under way in a discussion, not just about investigation, but about accountability,” Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told me. But the UN hasn’t even launched an investigation. At one point in April 2017, according to a Human Rights Watch report, UN security escorted a Uighur activist out of UN headquarters, where he was participating in a forum. A Chinese diplomat later bragged about it on state media, Hart noted in her testimony.
In another instance that Human Rights Watch highlighted, the Chinese government detained an activist who tried to go to Geneva for a session at the Human Rights Council. After the activist, Cao Shunli, died following a six-month detention, Chinese diplomats in Geneva blocked efforts to hold a moment of silence in her memory. China’s “human-rights agenda is not about human rights,” Bernard said. “It’s about Chinese politics.”
The same is true of any other mechanism China uses to build its influence around the world. If China has pushed to install its diplomats at the helm of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, it’s not necessarily because the Chinese Communist Party cares a great deal about the issues at the core of those agencies. It’s about gaining political and economic influence over member states. Case in point: Cameroon put forward a candidate to lead the Food and Agriculture Organization, who withdrew after Beijing forgave Cameroonian debt. China also reportedly threatened to cut off important exports to other countries if they refused to back Beijing’s candidate. The Chinese candidate won.
The clearest example of how China uses this influence involves Taiwan, the democratically governed island that the Chinese Communist Party claims as part of its own territory. Hart noted that after Taiwan, in 2016, elected President Tsai-Ing Wen, who ran as an advocate for Taiwanese sovereignty from Beijing, the WHO stopped inviting Taiwan to its global summit—though Taiwan’s attendance hadn’t been cause for concern the prior year, when a pro-Beijing president was in charge of the island. “As soon as the people of Taiwan elected a candidate that Beijing didn’t like, ‘Oops,’” Hart said. “You cannot convince me that it no longer made sense for the WHO to have those people represented there because the presidency changed.” More recently, a senior WHO official dodged questions about Taiwan’s success in responding to the pandemic, saying instead: “When you look across different areas of China, they’ve actually done quite a good job.”
Still, all this maneuvering might have its limits. A Pew Research Center survey from December, before the coronavirus crisis engulfed the entire world, found negative views of China in much of the United States, Western Europe, and Asia. China has economic clout and is savvy about using it, but this hasn’t necessarily bought it enduring influence in the world’s other economic power centers.
Now U.S public opinion toward China is at an all-time low, according to Pew, and though data do not yet exist on how world public opinion has changed since the crisis, Chinese leaders are already clearly worried. They are pumping out propaganda disparaging the U.S. response and touting their help to stricken countries. Reuters reported on an internal Chinese document fretting about the possibility of a global backlash akin to what China saw after the Tiananmen Square massacre. China is a great deal richer and militarily stronger than it was in 1989, but with the world awash in a pandemic and the U.S. trumpeting China’s culpability, Beijing may soon find that there are some things money can’t fix.
Leah Feiger contributed reporting.