Qu Dongyu

Exerting Influence How China Is Instrumentalizing the FAO

Stand: 30.06.2023 05:01 Uhr

This weekend, a new Director-General will be elected to run the Food and Agriculture Organization. The lone candidate is incumbent Qu Dongyu. Reporting has revealed how he has utilized the organization to promote Chinese interests.

Von Arne Meyer-Fünffinger, Alexander Nabert, BR, Lucas Grothe, Andreas Rummel, MDR, Judith Brosel, Florian Barth SWR

The Chinese head of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has spent the last four years tailoring the agency to Chinese interests. That is the finding of joint reporting conducted by German public broadcasters BR, MDR, rbb and SWR. The reporting has found that the incumbent Director-General, Qu Dongyu, has instrumentalized the FAO, which is headquartered in Rome, to serve Beijing’s interests. The findings include deliveries to Europe of banned pesticides, the majority of which come from a Chinese agrochemical company; UN projects in accord with China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and conspicuous investment plans.

Early this year, an FAO insider approached German public broadcaster ARD, claiming that ever since Director-General Qu Dongyu took office in August 2019, the organization has changed drastically. The informant’s tip kicked off several months of reporting conducted on four continents. The journalists involved are now able to reveal the extent of the manipulation - with the help of a leaked dataset and internal documents, along with interviews conducted with current and former FAO employees and with national and international experts.

The Food and Agriculture Organization is a UN agency whose goal is to end world hunger by 2030 and achieve food security for the entire global population. Germany is one of 194 member countries. According to current UN statistics, Berlin contributed more than 100 million euros to the FAO in 2021, making Germany the FAO’s second-largest donor country behind the United States.

Millions in Debt Forgiven - Rival Withdrew Candidacy

The majority of the FAO member states elected Qu as Director-General in 2019 in the first round of voting, elevating him above a candidate from the European Union and one from Georgia, who had the support of the United States. Prior to becoming FAO Director-General, Qu served as China’s vice agricultural minister. He made a name for himself in moving the Belt and Road Initiative forward, Beijing’s vast infrastructure project that includes massive investments in roads, railways and ports in dozens of countries, with the goal of developing strategic trade routes for China.

Ahead of the FAO election, China had forgiven almost $80 million in debt held by Cameroon, after which the country withdrew its own candidate for the director general post. Julia Klöckner of the center-right Christian Democrats served as German agricultural minister from 2018 to 2021 and took part in the 2019 vote on behalf of Germany. In recalling the election day, she says: "Ahead of the vote, we began hearing that African countries, in particular, had been requested to take a photo of their ballots in the voting booth." FAO observers interpret this as an indication that China may have offered several countries compensation in exchange for their votes.

The FAO Committee on Constitutional and Legal Matters looked at the election and also suggested that time-tested procedures and rules used by other UN organizations be examined. The committee's report also documents a discussion about cell phones in voting booths.

Reports to the Embassy

Soon after the Chinese Director-General began his new job, he set about linking the UN organization more closely with the Chinese leadership. Part of that effort was the development of a new FAO website. Instead of hiring an IT company to perform the work, the project went to the Chinese Agricultural Ministry. According to a list of significant payments, more than $400,000 flowed to Beijing as part of the project.

Under Qu’s leadership, the UN organization appointed numerous Chinese to important posts. That is most clearly apparent among the influential directors, who are appointed directly by the director general. When Qu joined the agency, there were two Chinese directors at the FAO. Now, there are six. They are in charge of numerous employees and have control over budgets. One of the Chinese directors represents the FAO at the United Nations.

Internal FAO documents viewed by BR, SWR, rbb, MDR and ARD's Rome bureau provide insights into a special group of organization employees. Called "officers," they work at FAO headquarters in Rome, but their salaries are paid by Beijing. Other countries also pay compatriots as officers. Application documents, however, show that the Chinese officers were "strictly" vetted for their "political ideology." Furthermore, they must regularly report to the Chinese Embassy in Rome about their work. The FAO insider says that within the agency, the Chinese officers are referred to as "spies."

A Deal with a Chinese Pesticide Company

One of the Chinese directors is responsible for the area of plant protection, and thus also for how pesticides are used. Under Chinese leadership, the FAO has been approving deliveries of controversial pesticides to Africa, Asia and Oceania, as internal documents from the years 2020 to 2023 show. The records indicate that FAO headquarters in Rome has authorized the use of pesticides for projects in several different countries. Many of these pesticides contain chemicals that are banned in the European Union because of their toxicity.

The biggest share of delivery clearances where specific products could be ascertained included pesticides from the agrochemical company Syngenta. Since 2017, Syngenta has belonged to a state-owned Chinese company. Under Qu’s leadership, the FAO formed a partnership with the company - the only such partnership the organization has established with a pesticide producer. In addition, the FAO has set up a partnership with CropLife, an international trade association of agrochemical companies to which Syngenta belongs.

Former FAO employee Hans Dreyer says he is "shocked" by the frequency with which shipments of such toxic pesticides have been approved. Dreyer is the predecessor of the current Chinese director responsible for plant protection at the UN agency. "I can only speak about the period when I was there," he says. "We sought to absolutely avoid the use of such substances. And when I look at it from that perspective, if you start using these substances now, it is equivalent to increasing the risk." When he was working there, he says, they did nothing of the kind.

When approached for comment, the FAO said that it never supplies substances that fulfil the criteria for highly dangerous pesticides, and provides only those pesticides that are approved in recipient countries. The FAO did not answer questions about specific approvals for pesticide deliveries, particularly those involving chemicals banned in the EU due to their toxicity.

Projects for the Belt and Road Initiative

The reporting shows that numerous FAO projects are beneficial to China’s Belt and Road Initiative - referred to within China as "One Belt, One Road." One example is the vaccination of cattle in Laos performed by China through the UN organization. According to an FAO press release, the cattle were designated for export to China. An internal FAO project description notes that the project is "consistent with China’s priority to support the ‘One Belt-One Road (Silk Road)’ Regional Trade Initiative".

A FAO "flagship" program launched under the Chinese Director-Generalis also consistent with the pursuit of Chinese interests. The Hand-in-Hand Initiative seeks to bring investors together with countries looking for outside investment. The initiative, for example, promotes investments in the expansion of ports and tourism in the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, such as a quay suitable for cruise ships.

The country lacks sufficient electricity, fuel and infrastructure, but the Atlantic islands are nonetheless of strategic importance to China, as can be seen by the expansion of the airport and the announcement of the construction of a deepwater port. Political analyst Gustavo Plácido dos Santos says that the geographic location of the islands is the primary reason for China’s interest in São Tomé and Príncipe, since the Belt and Road Initiative doesn’t yet have a direct link to the Atlantic.

In April 2022, Director-General Qu traveled to Panama to advance an infrastructure project that is part of the Hand-in-Hand Initiative. During the visit, he met with Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo to discuss a possible Food Hub at the Panama Canal - a storage and processing station for food shipments.

Evan Ellis, a Latin America scholar at the U.S. Army War College, says that the Panama Canal has thus far never been used in such a manner. He believes, however, that the FAO-backed investment plan would provide benefits to Chinese companies "that they could not get directly in the market through competition or acquisitions." Western companies, he points out, largely control the global agricultural logistics market.

The FAO did not respond in detail to an extensive list of questions. A planned interview with the organization’s chief economist was cancelled after pre-prepared questions were sent.

Christoph Heusgen, head of the Munich Security Conference and Germany’s UN ambassador from 2017 to 2021, says: "China is currently emerging from Russia’s shadow and is growing more self-confident. The country wants to replace the U.S. as a global power, and one of the ways China is trying to do so is via the United Nations." In early July, Qu will be seeking reelection as FAO Director-General. All rival candidates have withdrawn, and neither Europe nor the U.S. have nominated a rival candidate. Germany’s Agriculture Ministry notes that Qu’s first term as Director-General produced "mixed results." Instrumentalizing the FAO for unilateral interests, the ministry says, cannot be tolerated.

The documentary "Food.Power.China" can be found in the ARD Mediathek. English subtitles are available.