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As global conflicts increase, the United Nations should take the lead in promoting democratization and rule of law in international relations, says senior diplomat Jin Yongjian as China marks 50 years since it returned to the multilateral organization

By Song Chundan Updated Jan.1

Jin Yongjian at his home in Beijing in October

2021 marked 50 years since the restoration of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) seat at the United Nations. The same year, former UN under-secretary general Jin Yongjian received a medal commemorating his 50 years of membership in the Communist Party of China.  

Since regaining its UN seat, China has made great changes in its perception of international affairs, the status and role of the UN, and its role and responsibilities in the UN.  

In 1990, Lin served as China’s deputy representative to the Permanent Mission to the UN, representative to the UN Office in Geneva and other state organizations in Switzerland. In March 1996, he was under-secretary general of the UN. After a four-year term, he served as president of the UN Association of China in 2001. In October, NewsChina sat down with Jin in Beijing to talk about the interactions between China and the UN over the past five decades.  

“At present, we are experiencing a great international change. In this new historic period of transformation and turmoil, China should continue to actively promote cooperation with the UN to a new upgraded level. The UN should stick to true multilateralism and take the lead in promoting democratization and rule of law in international relations,” Jin said.  

NewsChina: On October 25, 1971, the 26th General Assembly of the UN adopted Resolution 2758, recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China to the UN. What effect has this resolution had on China and the world?  

Jin Yongjian: The restoration of the PRC’s lawful seat at the UN was of great significance to China, to the UN and the world. For China, it overturned a past injustice. Its international status was recognized by the international community. It marked major diplomatic progress for its future development in the international community.  

For the UN, without the PRC legally representing over 700 million Chinese people, the UN was incomplete. The UN Security Council started to include voices from developing countries such as China, truly reflecting the UN’s principle of universality.  

For the world at that time, under the backdrop of competition between the two main powers, the US and the Soviet Union, the PRC’s restored lawful status could balance global power struggles and amplify the voices of developing countries and power for peaceful progress.  

NC: Mao Zedong said that it was “our African brothers” who supported China in regaining UN status. As you worked at China’s embassies in Kenya and Nigeria for 13 years and served as deputy director and director of the Africa Department of the Foreign Ministry, what role did African countries play in the PRC’s return to the UN?  

JY: Since the founding of New China, the country always supported the independence and liberation of African countries. Former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited more than a dozen countries in Asia and Africa from late 1963 to early 1964, and announced the “Eight Principles of China’s Foreign Assistance” in Africa. By 1970, China had established economic and technological cooperation with 17 African countries, working closely with them by sending medical teams, and trying its best to provide assistance. The Tazara [TanzaniaZambia] Railway, with support from China, had a far-reaching influence and is often mentioned by African countries even today. China-Africa friendships are stable.  

In addition to the support of many African countries, the main reason behind China’s overwhelming support was the improvement of China’s international status, international influence and its own strength. Furthermore, in July 1971, then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly visited China, and the two sides announced that president Nixon would visit China in 1972. Once the news was announced, the international world noticed the changes in China-US relations, which resulted in many countries reversing their stances on the PRC’s UN seat restoration.  

NC: In 1977, you were appointed to the Chinese UN delegation. What challenges did you face, and how did you adjust to your new role in multilateral diplomacy?  

JY: In the summer of 1977, I was assigned to the Permanent Mission of China to the UN, mainly working on Africa affairs. China was not a member of the Special Committee Against Apartheid, but sometimes I attended meetings as an observer.  

When I first arrived at the UN, I was a complete layman in multilateral diplomacy, and I didn’t have enough background knowledge. For example, when the Falklands War broke out in 1982, the Security Council held a meeting to discuss it. I didn’t know much about the process and background of the war, so I had to work through the night to check the available information. When I first arrived at the UN in 1977, I wrote down the key points of every speaker at every meeting I attended. But after a year or two, I realized that there was no point in writing this down since the position of each country was basically the same on different occasions. 
In addition, multilateral diplomacy also requires rapid responses, sometimes on-the-spot decisions with no time for consultation. For example, if representatives from other countries provoked China at the venue, I had to respond immediately.  

In my view, bilateral diplomacy requires a deep understanding of both countries, which provides opportunities for access to a wider range of people. But the range of perspectives is limited. Multilateral diplomacy, while it’s not easy to get a deep understanding about a specific country, provided me with a wider range of perspectives.  

NC: Are there different stages in China’s changing attitude toward the UN and the role it played in the UN?  

JY: The first stage was in the 1970s when China started to participate in UN affairs. However, due to lack of direct contact with the UN in the past and compounded by the Cultural Revolution (1966- 1976), China’s participation in UN affairs was not profound. Also, China’s view of the UN’s significance was lacking. At that time, China believed that peacekeeping operations interfered in other countries’ internal affairs, so it did not participate in peacekeeping operations. Instead, it emphasized self-reliance, and it did not accept assistance from UN agencies. Generally, in the 1970s, apart from issues related to China or to the overall interests of developing countries, on which China expressed clear stances, China adopted a detached attitude on many other issues.  

The second stage was during China’s reform and opening-up [1978] to the late 1980s. China’s participation in the UN gradually deepened, and its contributions to the UN grew. At this stage, China stressed seeking truth from facts and began to accept multilateral assistance from the UN Development Program and the World Food Program.  

In April 1990, China sent five military observers to the UN Truce Supervision Organization, and began Chinese military participation in UN peacekeeping operations. To date, China has sent over 30,000 people to 24 UN peacekeeping operations, ranking first in providing the largest number of peacekeeping personnel among the permanent members of the UN Security Council. 

The third stage was after the 1990s, when China began taking UN affairs as an important aspect for the country’s diplomatic issues. Chinese leaders attended the UN General Assembly in person, such as in 1992, when then premier Li Peng attended the Security Council Summit. In 1995, the World Women’s Congress was hosted in Beijing, and then president Jiang Zemin attended the special meeting marking the 50th anniversary of the UN that same year. This September, President Xi Jinping made an important video speech at the general debate of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly. [On October 11] Kunming hosted the 15th Congress of the State Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (COP15). 
In addition, there was a time when China did not participate in negotiations, but rather expressed its position through other developing countries. Now, Chinese representatives participate in all UN affairs and conferences, actively participate in negotiations and consultations, put forward work documents and proposals, and support the reasonable propositions and legitimate demands of developing countries. At the first, second and third committees of the UN General Assembly this year, Chinese representatives often made joint statements as representatives for dozens of countries.  

NC: Today, China-US relations are in a very difficult situation, and there are some voices in the US pushing to contain China. Do you think the situation in international relations China faces today is similar to 1971?  

JY: The idea of containment is a Cold War mentality. For decades, China-US trade and China’s economic development have actually benefited both sides. But some people in the US believe that China’s rise will affect their share of the global pie. Even though the US remains the world’s largest superpower, it still tries everything possible to curb China’s development and uses its position to order others. This competition, as the US calls it, is indeed setting conditions for China. As Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, this is not the way to deal with Chinese people. 
That is a big difference from the situation in 1971. In the past, China and the US confronted each other and China and the Soviet Union also opposed each other, but the Cold War was mainly a struggle between the US and the Soviet Union.  

That resulted in a series of key international relations events such as Kissinger’s secret visit to China, China’s restored lawful seat in the UN, Nixon’s visit to China, and the US joining hands with China against the Soviet Union. But today, China and Russia have good relations. 
For Sino-EU relations, although the EU is different from China in terms of so-called values, ideology and social systems, economic relations between the two sides are smooth in all aspects. Furthermore, we have good relations with developing countries. 
China has established diplomatic ties with over 160 countries and is the top trading partner of over 100 countries. China’s international influence, both politically and economically, shows that “containment” is impossible. For example, when the US called for companies to move out of China, many companies did not. Instead, more have come to China due to China’s sound infrastructure as the world’s factory. Besides, the US is inextricably linked to China’s economy. 

NC: What’s your view of the status and role of the UN in international affairs today? 
JY: The status and role of the UN in international affairs remain very important. Nowadays, there are many regional organizations in the world involved in politics, economics, society and other aspects, such as the Shanghai Economic Cooperation Organization, African Union, European Union, G20, and others. But they all have limitations. As a global organization, the UN, with 193 member states, is the most universal and extensive intergovernmental international organization.  

The UN Charter is the most important document recognized by the international community for guiding international relations, so it remains the most authoritative international organization. As for the so-called rules-based international order put forward by some Western countries, it’s indeed a form engaged in by a small clique, reflecting unilateralism rather than multilateralism. 

China believes that there is only one system in the world – an international system with the UN at its center. There is only one order, which is international order based on international law. There is only one set of rules – the basic norms for international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. 

Jin Yongjian, then under-secretary general of the UN, in his office at the UN Headquarters in New York City in March 1996

Jin Yongjian talks with Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the UN, before leaving his job in August 2001.