The (model) UN comes to Beida

Tony is a humblingly politically aware friend of mine at Beida (short hand for Peking University). No surprises, I guess, as his dad works in the Foreign Ministry. He’s 21, a Beijinger – grandparents from Hubei – in his third year of a Politics and International Relations course here. And last week, he was secretary general of the United Nations.

Yes, yes, the model UN – where students take on the roles of diplomats of other countries and battle out the issues of the day. It’s incarnation on Chinese soil is held at Beida each spring (they have a website). I first got wind that Tony was this year’s secretary general when I saw him walking across campus in a suit, shuai as Shanghai, followed by a small army of delegates passing him half a dozen mobiles to answer like a troupe of bizarrely up-market phone hawkers.

So I asked Tony to tell us a bit about his experience, in particular how Chinese students react to the diplomatic setting of model UN. He very kindly sent me this long email:

I cannot express to you how delighted I am to see nearly 500 delegates coming from five continents to discuss global issues and exchange their point of views. During a whole year’s preparation, what continuously comes to my mind is a question like this: how can we Chinese students understand ourselves better in this international event? 170 years ago, China was drawn into the tide of globalization. Because of the lack of knowledge about the outside world, the uneasy feeling towards open-up lasts till now. In China, there is a old saying: it is commendable for a man to know himself truly.

But the 21st century is an epoch in which we can only know ourselves until we know the world. The Chinese are now building up new identities through comparison with other countries, through conflict and compromise when dealing with various challenges on the global agenda. This is exactly what we do in the model UN. In China, in fact, the activity itself is on the rise and students are now learning to express themselves according to international rules, trying their best to enter into the common language system, putting themselves in other’s shoes and then look back at their own country.

But I digress. What I would like to share with you is the setbacks faced by Chinese students in the model UN and probably also the obstacles faced by China in becoming a responsible stakeholder.

The Asian International Model UN (AIMUN) is neither an English contest nor a competition in choosing for the best delegate. Many Chinese participants speak fluent English, acquire the rules of procedure and devote themselves in every discussion. But they still face obstacles in communication. On the last day of the conference, a faculty advisor from South America expressed to me her concern that many Chinese delegates speak out of point and always use Chinese during unmoderated caucus, thus forming small blocks in the conference room.

I also mentioned to you last time about the “draft resolution (DR)” issue. In AIMUN, there could be only one DR passed per topic area. For many Chinese students, sponsoring a DR and persuading other delegates to vote for it into the final resolution is a great pride and an expression of the contribution he/she has made in solving a certain global problem. I guess there are basically two reasons why the Chinese care about being the sponsor of DR a lot. Firstly, some students/universities become too utilitarian when it comes to awards.

Many of them take AIMUN a competition held by Beida and their goal is to win the best delegate/delegation award. As an organizer, I understand that many students come to Beijing funded by local schools, so they need to bring a certain “title” home. In fact, many Chinese universities treat it quite seriously as if this is an award given by PKU officials.

The second reason is simple, the Chinese students used to be minorities in model UN conferences. For example, when asked about their experience in Harvard US National model UN, the Chinese participants will often express to you the annoyance of their well-prepared DRs being separated by aggressive Western delegates so that they can never gain the leadership in shaping the final outcome. Though AIMUN is an international conference, most of the delegates are coming from Asian countries. After all, many Chinese delegates think this is a conference held in China and they have some advantages to let others rally around the Chinese flags.

This may seem interesting, but it did give me a headache last week. In 2-3 committees, piles of DRs were of poor quality, conflicts rode over cooperation, but no one would compromise. Last week in our model ASEAN 10+3 Ministerial Summit, when discussing about the pirates in Malacca, two DRs were backed by different country blocks and both were not willing to give in or merge their resolutions with the other. The debate nearly led to personal attack between two Chinese delegates (and in fact, the boy made that girl cry because of his harsh words). Fortunately, they combined the two DRs into a new one because the meeting was coming to an end.

I also found out that Chinese delegates became somehow out of mind when involved in discussions about international law/institutions. That could be explained in some part by the lack of multilateral diplomatic practice of China. This year, we had the UN General Assembly-Legal, which involves 134 delegates discussing international law and global terrorism. This is the largest committee among 12 in AIMUN 2009. In fact, whether we should set up a legal committee this year raised heated discussion among the secretariat, because most of the delegates are not familiar with how a legal committee works.

Not to our surprise, the discussion was not at all “legal” and consensus became more difficult to build among such a number of delegates. But anyway, I think it is a step forward in China to raise university students’ awareness about how IR and international law are interrelated.

I must to confess that organizing international model UN activities is not without embarrassments. I think there’s no need for me to list a few, but some topics are indeed not welcome here in Beida and the school also forbid the association to send delegations abroad when such topics was chosen in other model UN conferences (I remembered the Harvard National model UN once modeled a committee after the 1952 CPPCC and Beida refused to issue students approvals). We also invited 15 delegates representing NGOs in AIMUN, which irritated the university a lot.

The problem is, the organizing committee involves a lot of foreign students in Beida, it is indeed an embarrassment for me to explain to them what is allowed and what is not. Sometimes I am the person who negotiates and compromises with various bureaus, cuts down sensitive topics and lessens the number of foreign delegates in order to make AIMUN survive. After all, it is not that serious like National People’s Congress, right? We are just running a student activity. See if we can discuss these issues next time, Alec. I hope it will interest you as it interests me.

Any thoughts or takes on this? Is this model UN for China’s leaders of tomorrow as important as the National People’s Congress? Do the actions of these Chinese delegates representing foreign countries say anything about attitudes towards multilateral diplomacy in China? Tony would love to hear some reactions, as he is considering writing his thesis on this…


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