China, the world’s leading cyberattacker and master intellectual property thief, in November nominated one of its nationals to head the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization. If Wang Binyang is selected in March, she will be able to bend international rules to favor her country’s assault on others’ technology. In any event, her nomination reveals Beijing’s brazen ambition to dominate multilateral institutions.
Beijing’s placement of officials inside multilateral institutions has greatly facilitated its malign activities. Take the case of Fang Liu, the secretary general of the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Last February, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that she hindered the investigation of a November 2016 cyberattack, called the “most serious” in that institution’s history. Emissary Panda, a hacker group with ties to the Chinese government, was thought to be behind assaults on the ICAO’s network. Dr. Liu came to the UN’s ICAO from China’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
Liu protected, among others, James Wan, the ICAO’s deputy director and head of information and communication technology, who repeatedly undermined the probe into the cyberattacks. Wan has current links to two institutions associated with a known hacker, China’s People’s Liberation Army.
China was not always so confident. Once, when it had withdrawn from the world, it shunned multilateral institutions. From 1967 to 1969, Beijing had only one ambassador abroad — in Egypt — and even he was almost recalled.
After border skirmishes with Moscow’s troops in 1969, however, Mao Zedong began to build contacts with foreigners. China, for example, joined the United Nations in 1971 by taking Taiwan’s seat and began cooperating with the Nixon administration. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, reoriented the country by establishing relations with other nations, such as the United States in 1979, and joining multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Deng’s outreach to global organizations, however, was only tentative: he feared they would restrain his regime. Now, China’s audacious officials have taken a more ambitious tack. Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2018 told the U.N. General Assembly that China remains “a champion of multilateralism.” So now Chinese leaders praise multilateralism — and undermine the multilateral agencies.
From its perch on the UN Security Council, for instance, Beijing has placed itself in a position to attack freedom and democracy. It was the force behind a just-passed, Russian-sponsored General Assembly resolution to create a new convention that, many fear, will be used to restrict online expression worldwide. One concern is that Moscow and Beijing are trying to criminalize, among other things, criticisms of governments.
Beijing has also been able to block the UN undermining its interests and punishing friends such as North Korea. Along with its hardline allies, it also controls the misnamed UN Human Rights Council. Chinese officials have used the country’s growing clout to bar activists, such as a Uighur, Dolkun Isa, from UN premises. Additionally, Chinese officials have, in violation of rules, photographed and filmed critics on UN grounds, and they have, in private settings, intimidated UN staff, experts, and other officials.
Beijing’s activities are so pervasive that a Human Rights Watch report states they not only call into question the UN’s investigation of China’s record but “pose a longer-term challenge to the integrity of the system as a whole.”
Beijing’s overreach is also challenging the integrity of both the World Trade Organization, where it has for two decades abused its rules and the body’s dispute-resolution mechanism, and Interpol, where it suddenly “disappeared” the institution’s chief, Chinese national Meng Hongwei, in September 2018.
At the World Bank, Beijing is tarring the image of development lending by misusing loans. China has, for instance, diverted sums earmarked for “vocational education” in its Xinjiang region for barbed wire, body armor, and tear gas, to help it repress minority inhabitants. Chinese officials also unsuccessfully tried to use World Bank loans to buy facial-recognition technology for use in Xinjiang.
China was even bold enough to ask for more World Bank money, and won from the Washington-based institution a five-year commitment through June 2025 to extend as much as $7.5 billion in low-interest loans.
China’s malign activities at the multilateral agencies have meant that these organizations have ceased to function as they should. That fallout has produced grumbling but not effective action — until the arrival of President Donald J. Trump.
Trump swiftly delegitimized the UN Human Rights Council by pulling out of it in June 2018, and he ended the operation of the WTO’s Appellate Body, the key part of that organization, by blocking the appointment of judges. It looks as if, in addition, Trump will soon start reducing American contributions to the World Bank. Clearly, he is not happy. “Why is the World Bank loaning money to China?” the president tweeted on December 6, “Can this be possible?”
Commentators have roasted Trump. The Atlantic Council’s Robert Manning, for one, in October called the president “a one-man wrecking crew, eroding the global order.” He has, Manning told us, “a cynical worldview.”
A more apt description is “realistic.” The institutions created after the Second World War, unfortunately, are not adapting well to this century. The ardent proponents of multilateralism have failed to protect global institutions. China has undermined them from the inside, and now those advocates are not dealing with Chinese predation but instead taking potshots at Trump’s corrective efforts.
Trump has cooperated with international organizations when he could and has worked to replace the others. As he moves forward, he is creating a more realistic and enduring international order.