China aims to send more staff to global governance agencies

As a direct expression of ‘reform of the global governance system’, a major topic of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, Beijing is committing resources and diplomatic effort to sending more of its nationals to work at the UN and other multilateral agencies.

The drive started well before Xi came to power, but his ‘global governance’ ambitions give it a major boost. At a Politburo study session in September 2016, Xi stressed that China needs to build a talent pool in order to project its presence in rule-making, agenda setting, publicity and coordination in global governance.

Qu Dongyu 屈冬玉, a former Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs vice minister, became director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on 1 August. Other top jobs filled by PRC nationals include

  • Zhao Houlin 赵厚麟 International Telecommunication Union secretary-general
  • Li Yong 李勇 UN Industrial Development Organisation director-general
  • Xu Haoliang 徐浩良 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) assistant secretary-general
  • Fang Liu 柳芳 International Civil Aviation Organisation secretary-general
  • Meng Hongwei 孟宏伟 headed Interpol (prior to his detention in China last year for corruption)
  • former Hong Kong police chief Andy Tsang Wai-hung 曾偉雄 is a nominee for executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime

‘too few Chinese at UN’

The importance of representation at the UN is widely recognised in Beijing. Senior jobs in UN bodies expand China’s influence and increase its ‘discourse power’ (huayu quan 话语权, also translated as ‘right to be heard’), argues Guan Zhaoyu 关照宇 Renmin University Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies.

Despite their growing number, Guan complains ‘there are still too few Chinese at the UN’: this is inconsistent with the nation’s role as a permanent member of the Security Council and the second largest contributor to the UN budget. China currently holds five positions in specialist agencies. In comparison, France holds two, the US one (and a couple of other important though not ‘specialised’ agencies), and the UK one.

what kind of positions to aim for?

Highlighting the role of expertise, You Jia 尤佳 Beijing Foreign Studies University argues that ‘expert resources’ are key to national voice, influence and leadership in international organisations. Therefore, Beijing should prioritise sending experts to senior positions at UN agencies and to its network of think tanks.

But junior and mid-level positions should not be neglected, argues Tang Bei 汤蓓 Shanghai International Studies University. Both research and executive talent must be trained, she suggests, and a balanced pool of human resources developed to fill mid-level and junior, as well as senior posts.


Many top universities have set up global governance programs, but according to Pu Ping 蒲俜 Renmin University School of International Studies, students need more internship opportunities: stepping stones to working in the multilateral system. China’s candidates have often been rejected due to lack of international agency work experience.

Universities need more state support to create these stepping stones, suggests Li Aiguo 李爱国 Beijing Foreign Studies University. The state should, he urges, support the whole process from selection and training to ‘export’.

Moves to boost support are already underway. According to new rules publicised by the China Scholarship Council in October 2018, both university students and working people can apply for state funding for internships at international organisations. Successful applicants are eligible for travel, accommodation, food and health insurance cover for 3-12 months.

assisting appointments

Many agencies have set up special programs to help young staff members fill posts, reports Xu Haoliang 徐浩良 UN Assistant secretary-general.

One impediment, however, is the lack of incentives to work abroad. Rising domestic income and difficulties resuming domestic careers after a UN tenure are contributing factors, reports Guan Zhaoyu. Incentives, he urges, need to be improved and the two-way flow of talent between domestic and multilateral agencies institutionalised.

Japan’s example could also be followed, suggests Guan, in attracting international organisations to set up base in China. This would make it easier for qualified staff to fill positions in international bodies.

talent deficit

In Beijing’s attempt to boost its influence at the UN, high-level gamesmanship (indeed, high pressure quid-pro-quo wheeling and dealing) is not unknown. After Qu Dongyu’s election as FAO director-general, Wang Yi 王毅 Minister of Foreign Affairs expressed his ‘most sincere thanks’ to China’s ‘African brothers and sisters’ for their support.

But gamesmanship alone is not enough. Policymakers have emphasised that China has failed to fill its personnel quota at the UN Secretariat mainly due to lack of appropriate development of its talent pool. The deficit is being tackled by stepping up training, encouraging internships and arranging secondments. Closing this gap is seen as a crucial step in Xi’s campaign to make China a leading force in global governance.

disseminating new values

Among You Jia’s prime concerns is the capacity of personnel sent to international organisations to transform their mission, and ‘build, disseminate and practice new values’ that are more internationally ethical and more in line with the common needs of developing countries. The ‘existing hegemonic behaviour’, she states, will thus be subject to a certain degree of restraint, unobtrusively reshaping how the interests of hegemonic states are understood.

To this end, if China wants to participate in and lead this change, it must issue a ‘Chinese voice’ when international organisations construct new values, a ‘Chinese story’ when spreading them, and a ‘China solution’ when practicing them.

‘This’ she says, ‘is the fundamental purpose of our talent transfer to international organisations.’

what are the experts saying?

Guan Zhaoyu 关照宇 | Renmin University Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies research fellow

Guan Zhaoyu 关照宇 | Renmin University Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies research fellow

Expert in global governance Guan, who studied at the universities of Denver and Kyushu, mainly works on the BRI and Japan. Given increasing reliance on international resources, he argues, China needs to get deeply involved in global governance. He worked for three years at the Ministry of Commerce, and now serves concurrently as a fellow at the Research Centre of UN and International Organisations at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Tang Bei 汤蓓 | Shanghai International Studies University School of International Relations and Public Affairs associate professor

Tang Bei 汤蓓 | Shanghai International Studies University School of International Relations and Public Affairs associate professor

An expert in the United Nations, Tang has written about UN peacekeeping operations and the administrative structure and reforms of the WHO and UNDP. She has argued that the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations is ‘passive’ about the use of force, an attitude caused by both outside pressure and its own anti-military culture and weak capabilities. This has in turn limited peacekeeping troops’ initiative and proactivity.

Pu Ping 蒲俜 | Renmin University School of international Studies

Pu Ping 蒲俜 | Renmin University School of international Studies

An expert in multilateral diplomacy, international organisations and international law, Pu has criticised Chinese research on international organisations, which she says tend to see them as only platforms or tools of big power diplomacy. She argues that they are not completely controlled by great powers and therefore more attention should be paid to their partially independent roles in international relations. She also serves as a research fellow at Renmin University’s National Academy of Development and Strategy.

in case you missed it…

cp.signals—domestic policy movement
BRI: high quality, low definition
Beijing sizes up the Hong Kong challenge

cp.positions—audit of shifts across policy sectors
governance: new FTZs and more…
economy: Shenzhen ‘socialist demo zone’ and more…—monthly roundup
august: trade war and more…
july: US-China and more…