Chinese Vice-President Han Zheng tells UN General Assembly to oppose ‘hegemonism’

Han also called for human rights and democracy, as defined by China, urging the global community to “oppose politicization and double standards, in particular the use of human rights and democracy as a political tool to interfere in the affairs of other countries”

Yet the impact of China’s messaging on Thursday was muted by the absence of President Xi Jinping.
The Chinese leader skipped the world’s premier annual diplomatic gathering, unlike his American counterpart, Joe Biden, who used the opportunity to defend his administration, deploy top officials to a host of side events and conduct bilateral meetings with allies.

Nor did Beijing choose to send its top diplomat, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as it did in past years, opting instead to dispatch Han, who holds a largely diplomatic post in the Chinese government.

Xi last appeared at the UN General Assembly by video in 2021, when he called on the world to “improve global governance and practice true multilateralism”. Wang attended in 2022.

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In his 15-minute speech Thursday before the 193-member body, Han cited the need for China’s three “globals” that serve as pillars of China’s alternate vision: its Global Security Initiative, Global Development Initiative and Global Civilizations Initiative.

Typical of Beijing’s approach, these were rolled out in recent years without great specificity.

The GSI, initially proposed by Xi in April last year and expanded on in a position paper 10 months later, calls for an alternate international order to Washington’s “rule-based” approach.

This approach touts the importance of state sovereignty and territorial integrity over individual rights, an end to unilateral sanctions and bloc confrontation and non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations.

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China’s development vision, the GDI, was unveiled at the UN General Assembly in 2021 and promotes the idea of “peace through development” as a companion of the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals.

This, critics say, is aimed in part at touting China’s impressive development, but is also designed to lure developing countries away from Western values and strict standards governing many World Bank and International Monetary Fund development projects.

The third pillar, focusing on “civilization”, promotes a state-focused value system aimed at banishing “universal values” – including human rights, democracy and community empowerment – as they are defined by many Western countries.

“According to Beijing’s version of events, just when the world needed a strong and united global leadership the most, the Western-led global governance system failed it,” the Atlantic Council said in a June report.

“Together, the three global initiatives stem from the ideological edge of Xi’s efforts to roll back American global primacy,” it said.

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In another dig at the general assembly, China’s vice president criticized Washington for being in arrears with its UN dues and for what it considers hypocrisy with its own human rights, again without citing the US by name.

“Major countries should lead by example and deliver on their commitment to multilateralism,” he said. “No matter what stage of development it reaches, China will never practice hegemony and expansion.”

Analysts have ascribed the Chinese Communist Party’s preference for vaguely defined signature initiatives to a desire for latitude, enabling it to maneuver as conditions change and avoid being pinned down.

“While this method allows for revising policy based on feedback and changing interests, when dealing with foreign partners, the lack of predictability becomes an issue,” said Laura van Megan, assistant researcher at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute.

“How can a country commit to GSI, GDI or GCI without knowing which policy direction they represent?” she added. “And as the initiator behind these public goods, China has the most power to fill in the blanks.”

China’s bid to craft an alternate global model dovetails with growing differences between Washington and Beijing in a range of other areas.

These include US-led efforts to deny China advanced Western technology that can be used for military purposes, amid Beijing’s push for indigenous advances on this front. Washington’s allies and partners strategy has also seen China tout its ties with allies Russia and North Korea.

Taken together with Biden’s speech on Tuesday, Han’s speech reflected many of the issues at the heart of US-China competition for support from less developed countries, also referred to as the “Global South”.

These included the existential nature of climate change for many Pacific Island and African nations, global inequality and artificial intelligence, among others.

But the two sides offered markedly different solutions, with Biden defending the existing international architecture, albeit with reforms, and China arguing for a measured shift to what it sees as a fairer system.

China has also walked a careful line, identifying itself as a core member of the Global South despite being the world’s second-largest economy with a US$18 billion GDP.

“As the largest developing country, China is a natural member of the Global South,” Han said.

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And while Han and Biden both gave a nod to the need for an expanded UN Security Council beyond the permanent five members – China, the US, France, Britain and Russia – neither made concrete commitments, wary of any change that created more support for the other side.

“The U.S. has not tabled a specific model for Council reform that it wishes to champion,” said Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group. “China has indicated that it would be open to developing countries gaining more power in the Council, again sidelining Berlin and Tokyo, although its exact preferences are unclear.”

China is “really trying to harness and bring up the voice of the Global South or the 152 developing countries,” said Taylah Bland, a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

“It’s just trying to be an alternative to the US world order,” she added. “But how exactly it’s going to achieve that has not been set out yet.”

Additional reporting by Igor Patrick

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