A recent controversy with the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) amid a coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak in China has once again raised questions on whether it is wise to exclude Taiwan from specialized UN agencies.
What was also known was that in recent years, China has successfully installed its own people at the head of specialized UN agencies, including the WHO, Interpol, and, since 2015, at ICAO, in the person of Fang Liu, formerly at the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). In recent years, several experts have raised questions about undue influence at the UN (at the General Assembly more particularly) and within specialized agencies, where in some cases it has been feared that Chinese nationals elected to represent the agencies may have been putting Beijing’s interests before those of the international community. Other, non-Chinese officials who may have been co-opted or were offered lucrative jobs following their employment at the UN are also suspected of pushing Beijing’s agenda.
There was early speculation that Qining Guang, who was seconded to ICAO from the CAAC, may also have played a role in the Twitter fiasco, especially due to her earlier employment with the All-China Journalists Association, an organization in Beijing that, among other functions, ensures that Beijing’s propaganda is spread to foreign media. ICAO denies that Guang was involved in the matter (her LinkedIn account was ostensibly taken down during the controversy).
The communications team at ICAO behaved like someone who realizes he’s been caught. Overwhelmed, it engaged in damage control and sought to cover its tracks. Very likely they had their marching orders from their superiors, Fang Liu among them (as CBC reported last year, a former employee described ICAO under Fang Liu’s leadership as “toxic and hostile,” characterized by “cronyism” and “favouritism”). As a result, the organization’s responses were self-contradictory, the accusations invidious, and the behavior fell well short of what we should expect from a UN agency. There is also a very high possibility that ICAO comms officers aren’t fully cognizant of Beijing’s designs on Taiwan, the complex history that surrounds its claims, or the kind of influence that China has had at the UN in recent years. So, to use a rather impolite term, such individuals are “useful idiots” who are not necessarily bad intentioned — at least not initially — but who end up being complicit in Chinese Communist Party-style censorship.
This silly incident is emblematic of the deeper problems at the UN, where we have allowed an increasingly authoritarian regime to hijack international institutions in a way that threatens us all. The coronavirus outbreak, like other health emergencies before it, also raises the question of whether it is wise to stick to a UN resolution passed a half century ago which clearly doesn’t reflect current global needs. Those aren’t questions that should directed at ICAO, let alone on Twitter.