Beijing’s move effectively blocking Wikipedia from gaining observer status at a United Nations agency last week on the grounds that it has a Taiwan subsidiary serves at least three of China’s political objectives, analysts said.
China’s move to deny observer status for San Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent, at the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (Wipo) dovetails with Beijing’s long-standing policy of limiting international recognition of the self-governing island. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province to be reunited by force if necessary.
“It’s a pretty low bar to qualify as an observer at Wipo,” said James Pooley, a trade secrets lawyer and former Wipo deputy director general who testified before Congress on malfeasance at the UN agency. “The problem that Wikipedia faced, it touched a third rail for China, which is Taiwan.”
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Beijing’s muscle-flexing also allows it to thumb its nose at Washington, which mounted a successful last-minute campaign earlier this year to derail China’s candidate as head of Wipo, analysts said. US-backed candidate Daren Tang, a Singaporean, won and will start his six-year term Thursday.
“China, of course, is really pissed off that the US did this against them,” said Wei Lei, former Wipo chief information officer, dismissed in 2019 over what he said were trumped-up charges of theft after reporting irregularities at the agency.
Beijing’s pique was on display after China’s candidate lost out when Ambassador Chen Xu lashed out at the US, accusing it of an “attack” on China’s candidate that was “not only unfair, but irrational”.
Relatively obscure Wipo has an outsize role in global patents and trademarks, a large discretionary budget and a relatively independent director general that has made it attractive to both major powers as they battle over technology.
Beijing’s slap down of Wikipedia also dovetails with its bid to push back on “Western liberal values” by advocating more state control over information, redefining “human rights” to include material rights and otherwise using its growing voice to blunt foreign criticism. Supporting Beijing’s move last week were Russia, Iran and Pakistan.
“It’s not surprising that Beijing would make common cause with other illiberal regimes,” said Walter Lohman, Asian studies director with the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation. “When international opinion touches on Chinese interest, the Chinese Communist Party has no compunction punishing it.”
“That’s a real problem for the free world,” added Lohman, a former US Senate staff member. “It’s especially a problem for Taiwan, because so much of the world is willing to throw Taiwan under the bus to curry favour with China.”
Seven countries have severed ties with Taiwan in favour of China since 2016, leaving it with 15, while China, which overtook the US last year in the number of diplomatic partners, has 276, according to the Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute.
That mismatch comes as China has increasingly been able to use its economic clout, military might and global influence to blunt criticism and punish those who voice sensitive human rights issues far from its shores. In outlining its objections involving Wikipedia, Beijing cited “disinformation in violation of the one-China principle on the affiliated websites of the foundation”.
“Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan would like nothing more than to push back on Wikimedia,” said an official close to Wipo. “Next time, China will support Russia, Iran or Pakistan on human rights issues. It’s you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Beijing is hardly the only one playing the carrot-and-stick game, however. The US and EU frequently engage in horse trading with UN allies on issues they consider important. In fact, China openly criticised the US for essentially playing the game better than it did over the top Wipo post.
“It is sad that the United States has gone so far as to warn some of the medium and small countries not to vote for China, or they will face consequences such as weakened relations with the United States or losing the World Bank and [International Monetary Fund] loans,” Chen said.
Wikimedia was one of 12 civic non-governmental organisations that applied for observer status at last week’s Wipo general assembly and the only one turned down after China accused it of carrying out political activities and threatening political stability using the Wikimedia Taiwan chapter. Wipo moved to defer the application, said UN insiders, essentially killing it.
“I hope as a body that this is a delay, that it’s going to be fine. I’ll take the outcome of this at face value,” said Sherwin Siy, Wikimedia’s senior public policy manager. “It’s an odd dispute to raise, odd objections in this context. It seems disproportionate to the work we’re trying to do at Wipo.”
Having observer status allows civic groups to influence global intellectual property policy in formal meetings and hallway gatherings, said civic groups that applied. Wikimedia said having observer status would allow it to keep track of copyright developments that could affect its open platform.
The application process seemed straightforward and professional, said those who were successful, adding that the last thing they needed was to get in the middle of a fight involving China, Taiwan and Wikipedia.
“We try to keep our heads down, stay out of the political manoeuvring, stick to our knitting,” said Tim Brooks, copyright committee chairman of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, which seeks to expand public access to historical audio recordings. “You just want to be the person on the side with a clipboard and thick glasses.”
The US-China jockeying to fill Wipo’s top spot highlights China’s growing global footprint and US counter-efforts to check its momentum, even as Trump has eroded US credibility and slammed the UN in favour of “America First” policies, said analysts.
Each country has four top spots out of the 15 specialised UN agencies and Wipo would have given China five, even though Beijing contributes far less than Washington to the UN budget.
“In the last two years, China has been much more strategic about its approach to the UN. It sees the UN as an instrument to advance its policy ambitions in the way the United States simply hasn’t,” said Kristine Lee, associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s clear that China has mapped out strategically important agencies such as Wipo and does the leg work to get its people elected.”
Once in place, Beijing has used its leadership positions effectively, said Lee. It has shifted the debate on the Human Rights Council, arguing that raising millions of people from poverty is a human right, she said, thereby blunting criticism of its tightening grip over Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
On other fronts, Lee added: China’s influenced technical standards at the International Telecommunication Union to benefit Huawei; used UN peacekeepers to promote overseas weapons sales; used the Food and Agricultural Organization to promote its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure project as a counter to the UN Sustainable Development Goals aimed at helping the environment and the poor; and it has used the International Civil Aviation Organization to route flights away from Taiwan during the pandemic.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Several top UN agency jobs will open in the next few years, and Washington might do a better job preparing, Lee said.
“Ultimately, China is eroding what the US has seen as the rule-based order and shifting rules in its favour,” she added. “It’s creating a world that’s much safer for [Chinese Communist Party] authoritarianism and advancing that strategy through the UN.”
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