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.”