By Steve Tsang.

The Chinese government has not only vetoed a draft UN resolution over Syria but also articulated the view that it has done so in the interests of the people of Syria. This view was published in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party under the penname of Zhong Sheng. The characters for ‘Zhong Sheng’ mean the sound of a bell but they are phonetically the same as ‘the voice of China’. The word play may be intended to imply the voice of China on this is as clear as a bell.

Why has the Chinese government done so? The main points ‘Zhong Sheng’ makes are that it is wrong for the great powers to use the UN as an instrument to seek a regime change in Syria, and it is better for the high complex problems in Syria to be resolved by political means and negotiations within the country. 

Zhong Sheng is also concerned that if China (and Russia) did not veto, it can result in a situation similar to that in Libya, where European powers supported by the US went beyond the UN mandate and ousted, albeit through the Libyan ‘rebels’, Muammar Gaddafi from power. 

Indeed, the UN should not be an instrument for regime change, and its mandates should be respected in full.  Nor can one seriously disagree with the proposition that a political solution within Syria would be the best outcome.

The problem with the Chinese government’s position is that civilians in Syria have been killed indiscriminately and in increasing numbers by government forces.  The UN resolution was meant to constrain President Bashar al-Assad from using force to ‘resolve’ the political problems that plague Syria.  The veto can only deliver the opposite of what Zhong Sheng advocates, however.  We have already seen the unleashing of even greater and more indiscriminate force against civilians in the city of Homs after the veto.

By the use of the veto the Chinese government has ensured the escalation in atrocities in Syria.  Contrary to what it expects, this very action gravely damages its ambition to project soft power globally and to its standing among most people in the Middle East.

If the Chinese government were really keen to ensure the people of Syria would determine their own political future, it should not have vetoed the resolution but insisted on modifying the wording.  Was there really no scope to reach a compromise over what the UN would like to ask Assad to do?  Would the US, UK or France have vetoed a modified UN resolution that simply calls for a cease-fire in Syria and the start of a political process for a political settlement, without demanding President Assad to step aside immediately? 

China asserting itself in international affairs in general and in Syria in particular can be a positive development, but not if it is focused on helping autocrats to stay in power by resorting to brutal repression of their citizens.

Steve Tsang is Director of the China Policy Institute and Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. “…it is focused on helping autocrats to stay in power by resorting to brutal repression of their citizens.”

    If this is the principle within, how could it not be the principle without? Beijing rejects double standards (lest Chinese people misunderstand them).

    1. Thank you, J.S. Domestic considerations are clearly more important to the powers that be in Beijing than international reactions.
      Steve Tsang

  2. The British Foreign Secretary last night made it abundantly clear that China with Russia now bear responsibility for the brutal murder of Syrian people by the regime. Another example of the paradox of China’s rhetoric. We promote harmony in the rhetoric, but our actions promote disunity (amongst UN) and disharmony (which is not a strong enough word for supporting a murderous regime). It is one thing to stand up for government as a legitimate authority, but another to drop morality entirely from the equation and show flagrant disregard for human rights in every sense of the term. If the Chinese government showed more respect for people’s lives it might earn respect from other countries. If the Chinese government thought carefully before they acted, they might act in their own best interests. It would appear that the Chinese government having attained a pseudo-legitimacy through WTO accession and displacing Taiwan at the UN, is sliding back into the world of amoral politics without Chinese characteristics.

  3. I suspect Russia and China fear when Russian or China Spring do happen one day, it will not have to suffer the same fate like the regime of Gaddafi. This veto is a way to stop US & UN collaboration & absolute power.

    1. Even though I see the hidden agenda of the military intervention in Lybia, yours is a short-sighted and groundless justification of the veto. First, how could a UN resolution condemning violence on civilians in Syria allow the US/UN to intervene in case of an uprising in China? China could veto a resolution on itself, in this (very unlikely) scenario. Second, how long do you expect Assad to last? Historical fact: Regimes end, and militarised regimes end faster. The next people in charge of Syria will remember their friends and foes. When that day comes, the line “we feared a pro-democracy uprising at home and wanted to stop US/UN absolute power” (whatever that means) is not going to wash the blood off Beijing’s hands. Regimes come and go, but the Syrian people will stay. Now picture yourself repeating your comment while looking a Syrian in his/her eyes….

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