China told gathered world leaders Thursday that it considers itself part of the Global South, saying it identifies with the goals and challenges of less developed countries and offers them an alternative to what it has long called “Western hegemony.” The message came from a second-tier official after the country’s powerful president, Xi Jinping, again skipped the annual UN meeting.
Xi sent Vice President Han Zheng to make a policy statement at the General Assembly leadership meeting that covered the government’s usual positions in familiar language but appeared to focus on building coalitions around its approach to development and international relations.
“As the largest developing country, China is a natural member of the Global South. It breathes the same breath as other developing countries and shares the same future with them,” Han said. He also said China supports the development path of these countries “in accordance with their national conditions.”
The loosely defined term “Global South,” which has come up often at the United Nations this year, identifies countries around the world that are less developed and less wealthy than what are commonly referred to as “first world countries.” They are not necessarily in the Southern Hemisphere; many in fact are not.
Leaders of several larger developing countries, including Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and India’s Narendra Modi, have recently cast themselves as leaders around whom the Global South could unite. On Tuesday, Lula told leaders at the UN meeting that “Brazil is back” in a speech that was widely received as maneuvering aimed at the Global South. And Modi hosted a virtual “Voice of the Global South” summit in January.
China, too, has loosely cast itself in a similar role for more than a decade – and even more so since Xi launched the Belt and Road Initiative to boost Chinese development, infrastructure and influence in other countries, especially developing ones. The sprawling project was widely touted, but hit bumps along the way.
“China,” Han promised, “will remain a member of the great family of developing countries.”
This statement is consistent with Beijing’s attempts to balance – often skillfully – the benefits of remaining a developing country with the benefits of being a major global economic and diplomatic power and as a counterweight to the West.
For decades, since the beginning of the “reform and opening up” that Deng Xiaoping launched after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China has positioned its approach to both domestic and international affairs as an alternative to “Western hegemony.” That counter-narrative is often a cornerstone of its international identity. Han’s “Global South” statements on Thursday are consistent with that longstanding sensitivity.
And China benefits from its association with the Global South, which allows it to frame its statements as if they speak for many countries – countries that may not be strong enough to object if such a powerful government mischaracterizes them.
Whether China and its $18 trillion GDP should actually be considered part of the Global South is an oft-debated issue. In January, during the Modi summit, 125 countries were involved, but China was not one of them. That may have had more to do with China’s often tense relations with India than with its attitude toward the concept in general.
Xi was one of four leaders of permanent members of the UN Security Council who failed to show up at the United Nations this week. France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Rishi Sunak and Russia’s Vladimir Putin also skipped it; US President Joe Biden, leader of the host country, was the only permanent member of the Security Council to deliver a speech.
Han Zheng’s presence at the United Nations came at a time when China’s diplomatic operation appears to be in some disarray.
Many expected Foreign Minister Wang Yi to come to the General Assembly and possibly pave the way for a Xi-Biden meeting. Wang attended last year and gave the speech. In the months that followed, a newly appointed foreign minister came and went with some mystery, and Wang once again assumed the role.
Han covered China’s usual topics at such meetings in his speech. Amongst them:
– He reiterated that Taiwan, the island off the Chinese coast that has its own independent government, has historically been and always will be part of China – a common message to the United States and the world. The island and the mainland split in 1949 after a civil war.
– He said China supported human rights “appropriate to our national conditions in response to the needs of our people.” Beijing’s repressive policies toward ethnic Uyghurs in the western Xinjiang region and its policies toward dissent, including in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, are regularly scrutinized by the West.
– He said, as China has done many times before, that a ceasefire and peace talks are the only way to end the war in Ukraine. China has walked a delicate line in the 18 months since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.