By Felix Brender
Earlier this month, China’s Qu Dongyu was re-elected as head of the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO). Media coverage was rather muted inside and outside China, where official media foregrounded Qu’s being the first Chinese in such a role and emphasized the praise Qu had universally received from member states for his first term.
Chinese reports did omit that Qu happened to be the only candidate running for the role after the Iraqi and Tajik nominees had withdrawn at the eleventh hour, for reasons unknown.
The relative silence is surprising not least because of the spectacle that was Qu’s first election in 2019, made possible with Africa’s support and financial incentives from Beijing which reportedly encouraged Cameroon’s Médi Moungui to quit the race.
In the Global North, the West’s inability to secure votes for Europe- and U.S.-backed contestants — was generally perceived as utter defeat, even as some, such as Le Monde, recognized that Qu, as former vice-minister for agriculture, was perfectly qualified for the job and that traditionally emerging countries take the lead at FAO: a rare and thus precious feature in international organizations.
Yet, the initial skepticism vis-à-vis China — infamous for its liberal resource policies and environmental degradation as a result of successfully fighting hunger through unsustainable agriculture — itself doesn’t seem to have subsided, quite the contrary.
In 2022, Politico nicknamed Qu “Chairman FAO” in an article on Western diplomats’ dissatisfaction with Qu’s sluggish efforts addressing the global hunger crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine while leveraging FAO towards China’s own development agenda at the detriment of the UN’s SDGs. At FAO’s behest, the 2021 independent UN Joint Inspection Unit review of FAO’s work under Qu was called off and postponed until after this year’s election.
An investigative documentary doubled down on earlier criticism a few prior to Qu’s re-election: German public broadcasters suggested Qu was reshaping FAO in China’s interest.
Substantiating earlier criticism, the documentary cites whistleblowers and internal documentation authorizing deliveries of controversial pesticides to the Global South, concerns of increased Chinese involvement at all levels in an increasingly rigid top-down structure, and sounds the alarm on FAO’s partnership with Chinese-owned, Shanghai-listed agrochemical Syngenta — previously unthinkable, the first and only of such partnerships.
We might be tempted to dismiss much of this as the Global North being a kvetch faced with China demanding influence adequately representing its actual size and impact and individual heart-of-glass Western politicians trying to pin their own failures onto others: welcome to power politics.
After all, all this might ultimately be trifle: despite climate-related natural disasters now also increasingly affecting the West, FAO’s remit remains less relevant to the Global North than to the South. And who knows, maybe the Global South is set to benefit from Chinese FAO leadership (even though looking at Laos, the documentary would disagree).
But there might be a bigger picture. In the context of the Ukraine war, Beijing has attempted to leverage the war by promoting narratives that Western support for Ukraine is to be blamed for rising food and energy prices — and some of it seems to stick, with Global South resentment of the West being considerable.
Against this backdrop, FAO’s Chinese-induced inertia used as pro-Beijing leverage might show to have much more substantial global and systemic ramifications for the whole world — not just delaying or preventing solutions at a time they are dearly needed but making such solutions altogether impossible.
Felix Brender 王哲謙 is a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics & a Project Associate at LSE Ideas.