After an official from Singapore beat out a mainland Chinese candidate in the World Intellectual Property Organization's leadership election in March, Beijing accused the U.S. of "politicizing" the vote. But China's own politicization of other international agencies has been alarming.
WIPO is a specialized agency of the United Nations tasked with promoting international protections for intellectual property. Frustration with China's widely known intellectual property violations runs deep in many industrialized countries, particularly the U.S.
Lobbying by Washington helped Daren Tang, head of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, secure support from enough WIPO member states to defeat Wang Binying, a deputy director general at the agency. Beijing objected to the process, though it has made no complaints about Tang, apparently considering him a reasonable choice.
Despite the outcome of this election, countries should be wary of the Chinese Communist Party's strategic penetration into the leadership of international organizations. Chinese nationals now lead four of the U.N.'s 15 specialized agencies.
This is natural for a country that seeks to strengthen its clout on the international stage. The problem is Beijing's use of this influence for political ends.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, for example, has not allowed Taiwan to participate even as an observer since China's Liu Fang was appointed as secretary-general.
Beijing's influence has also become apparent at the World Health Organization, even with a leader who does not hail from mainland China. Since China-skeptic Tsai Ing-wen took office as president of Taiwan, Beijing has blocked Taipei from attending WHO meetings as an observer.
And WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has made comments during the coronavirus outbreak that align with China's interests. When the virus still had yet to spread widely beyond China, he criticized travel restrictions that he said "unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade." An online petition calling for Tedros to resign has collected well over 600,000 signatures.
Aside from U.N. agencies, Western countries have accused Beijing of using Interpol for political purposes when it was led by China's Meng Hongwei.
Political distortion of international responses to cross-border issues such as aviation safety and public health have damaged trust in international organizations. A solid strategy will be needed to improve governance on a global scale.