The United Nations has backtracked on a pact with the Chinese telecommunications giant Tencent Holdings to provide videoconferencing and text services for the international organization’s 75th anniversary, following backlash from U.S. officials and lawmakers as well as human rights groups. Critics claim the arrangement rewards a company that has enabled Beijing’s digital surveillance efforts and stifled free speech on the internet in China.
Late last month, the U.N. sparked a political firestorm when it announced plans to enlist the help of the Chinese social media and video game giant to serve as a platform for an online discussion with millions of netizens around the world on the future of the U.N. in the run-up to its 75th anniversary observance. Over the following weeks, U.S. lawmakers and human rights advocates pressed the U.N. to ditch the deal, saying it would tarnish the international organization’s reputation as a champion of free expression and human rights.
Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch, said he hoped the decision to freeze the agreement was “a sign the U.N. recognize that Tencent isn’t an appropriate partner. Conveying underserved legitimacy on an enabler of Chinese censorship and surveillance is a bad idea.”
“China has been trying to use the U.N. system to whitewash its abysmal human rights record, and the U.N. shouldn’t allow itself to be a participant in that whitewash, either willing or unwilling,” Charbonneau told Foreign Policy. “The U.N. will hopefully go back to the drawing board and find a way to reach out to the people of China this year that doesn’t involve the promotion of an enabler of Chinese government oppression.”
The backlash comes as the international organization is increasingly caught up in the middle of a geopolitical squabble between the United States and China over Beijing’s growing clout on the world stage. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced he would freeze U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, pending an investigation into China’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.
On March 30, the U.N. announced a global partnership with Tencent aimed at reaching “millions of people across the globe to listen to their thoughts on what the world should look like in 25 years, and what role international cooperation should play in solving global challenges like climate change and pandemics such as the coronavirus,” according to the press release, which has since been removed from the U.N. website.
The arrangement granted the U.N. access to the Chinese firm’s business videoconferencing and text services, VooV Meeting platform, WeChat Work, and a translation engine, Tencent Artificial Intelligence Simultaneous Interpretation.
Privacy advocates were quick to point out that Tencent, like other Chinese tech giants, has abetted China’s expansive surveillance state and strict censorship on its own citizens. Beijing exerted tight control over access to information on the coronavirus during the country’s initial outbreak. Tencent’s WeChat scrubbed keywords related to the virus as early as December, as the Financial Times reported, likely hindering both Chinese citizens’ and foreign countries’ access to vital information on the outbreak in its early days. The Times previously reported on the United Nations’ relationship with Tencent.
China’s initial handling of the coronavirus has become a key point of contention with the Trump administration, as U.S. officials accuse Beijing of bungling the vital early stage of the outbreak by covering it up and dismissing international assistance, paving the way to its eventual global spread.
Initially, U.N. officials praised the partnership as it scrambled to transition its long-planned anniversary celebration to digital platforms amid the pandemic lockdown.
“Through Tencent, we will be able to hold online dialogues across borders, across different age groups with many people all over the world,” Fabrizio Hochschild, the U.N. secretary-general’s special advisor for the 75th anniversary, said in a videotaped statement. “We’ll be able to have access to better videoconferencing and digital dialogue tools. We believe that these global platforms can provide a vital venue for global solidarity.”
“Tencent is honored to participate and facilitate UN75 global conversations,” Martin Lau, the president of Tencent, said in a subsequent April 1 press release announcing the partnership, before the U.N. backtracked. “We will spare no effort in providing technical solutions to support online meetings and idea exchanges for the UN, with the aim of bringing the global village even close together and overcoming global threats through extensive dialogue and cooperation.”
But U.N. officials began having second thoughts following swift public criticism and behind-the-scenes queries from congressional staff and other U.S. officials.
“Considering one of the partnership’s goals is to discuss the future we want to see, what happens when people discuss these sensitive topics on a Tencent platform? Will they be censored? What happens to people saying these things if they are in China?” Michael Caster, a human rights advocate and co-founder of Safeguard Defenders, an organization that monitors human rights in China, asked in an op-ed for Nikkei Asian Review.
Tencent did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
U.N. officials privately acknowledged that the announcement was made in haste and that the organization is undertaking a review of its relationship with Tencent to determine whether it can address the concerns of its critics. But they insisted that Tencent was only one of a number of international tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Kahoot, that the U.N. has reached out to to participate in the 75th anniversary event.
One U.N. official said the organization is now consulting internally to see whether the criticism from human rights groups about the need for data privacy and data anonymity can be addressed in “a possible agreement to ensure adequate safeguards are put in place. But no agreement has been concluded.”
The latest controversy comes as the United States wages a diplomatic battle against another Chinese tech company, Huawei, as it seeks to build up foreign countries’ 5G telecommunications infrastructure. Both cases reflect how fraught relations between Washington and Beijing are, particularly as top U.S. leaders and lawmakers blame their Chinese counterparts for mishandling the country’s coronavirus outbreak that led to the global pandemic.
The U.N. collaboration raised questions as to whether Tencent’s so-called “moderation rules”—its policy regarding what speech will be censored on its platforms—would apply to the U.N. dialogue and whether such rules would limit the ability of Chinese netizens to participate without fear of reprisals, according to David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression—an independent expert.
“There is a broader question of whether the United Nations should collaborate with companies that have serious restrictions on the nature of public debate allowed on their platforms,” he said.
Many other communication platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, are banned in China—potentially limiting the United Nations’ options in picking a platform to stream its meetings worldwide.
In internal U.N. communications obtained by Foreign Policy justifying the organization’s partnership with Tencent, a U.N. official said a global survey for the 75th anniversary, publicly available on its website, was “not readily accessible in China.”
“As such, Tencent has offered to help create an online platform in China to help disseminate the survey to people in China,” the official wrote. “Survey responses will also be treated with the same data and anonymity protection that we afford through our one-minute UN75 survey elsewhere.”
Several U.S. congressional Democratic and Republican staffers tracking the issue highlighted the irony in this: Chinese censorship guards likely prevented access for its citizens to a U.N. survey, so the U.N. enlisted the help of a Chinese company abetting that censorship to disseminate the survey.
“That raises a lot of concerns if [the U.N. is] making a decision to reach a global audience. The only companies you can choose are the Chinese ones because the Chinese are prohibiting Western companies from actually operating there,” one Republican congressional staffer said.
The U.N. is seeking to solicit views from ordinary individuals, think tank experts, and other members of civil society to present to world leaders assembled at the United Nations in September.
The 75th anniversary committee has received just more than $7.6 million in total funding, including more than $3 million in contributions from China, Germany, France, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Turkey, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates.
A group of American and European foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the United Nations Foundation, contributed nearly $4.5 million. The Chinese government contributed about $300,000, while the United States, which has protested Beijing’s growing influence at the United Nations, contributed nothing.