Sep 26, 2020 - World

What China wants from the global system

Illustration of podium with microphone in front of deconstructed Chinese flag
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Chinese President Xi Jinping this week at the United Nations General Assembly sought to portray China as the responsible global stakeholder, in contrast to the U.S.

The big picture: China is happy to work within existing multilateral structures, as long as they don't stop Beijing from doing what it wants.

In his Sept. 23 speech, Xi extolled the World Health Organization, expressed "abiding commitment" to the UN charter, and warned against attempts to roll back globalization.

  • But China has also undermined the UN commitment to human rights, violated principles shared by World Trade Organization members, and ignored a major ruling from an international court at The Hague.

What he's saying: "Let us join hands to uphold the values of peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom shared by all of us and build a new type of international relations."

Between the lines:

  • By "democracy," Xi means that a small number of countries — namely, Western democracies — shouldn't be able to dictate what less powerful but more numerous non-Western countries can do, especially within their own borders.
  • By "development," Xi is referring in part to China's emphasis on the "right to development," a euphemism meaning that governments with human rights or corruption problems should not be sanctioned or denied loans. He is also giving an implicit shout-out to China's Belt and Road Initiative, which builds infrastructure, and China's political influence, abroad.

When it comes to the United Nations, the Chinese Communist Party has worked particularly hard to undermine the organization's ability to call out or take action on human rights violations.

The bottom line: Xi envisions a world in which governments face no international scrutiny for how they treat their own people — and preferably, to quote a previous speech of his, one with China "closer to the center of the world stage."

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