China Gives an Example of Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

Believing in the protection of heritage, China nowadays has the most heritage sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, is number one, 55 heritage sites, protecting also the intangible heritage, the tradition. It’s a wonderful example that when a country, when a people awakens up, it is through culture, it is through this deep, I would say, belief and respect for diversity and for culture.

Editor’s Note: This year marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Over the past decades, the UN and its major organizations have made a great contribution to the world’s peace and development. China maintains close cooperation with the UN. David Gosset, the founder of Europe-China Forum, discussed with Irina Bokova, former Director-General of UNESCO. Irina Bokova has been two terms the Director-General of UNESCO from 2009 to 2017. She is the first woman and the first Eastern European to lead the Organization.

A Time of Collaboration, hosted by Mr. Gosset, is a high-level dialogue with international veteran diplomats, business elites and outstanding scholars. The serial interviews are presented by China Focus in association with DG2CI Limited.

David Gosset: Irina, it’s really a great pleasure to have the chance to have this conversation with you. You are in Paris with a lot of books, and we have the great pleasure to be in Shanghai. In our back, of course, you know Shanghai very well, this is Lujiazui. Of course, Irina, 2020 is a year in which we have seen the increase of uncertainties. And when we had to face the pandemic, I think the notion of resilience was very much apt to describe what we had to do. But now we have entered another phase in this post-pandemic world or post-COVID-19 world, to a certain extent, we can use “post” only. And we think that the concept of collaboration has to be explored in a more systematic way. Therefore, my first question, Irina, would be about your understanding of collaboration, and why do you think collaboration is so important for our world today?

Irina Bokova: You know, David, 2020 was supposed to be a very important year. It is the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. It is five years after the adoption of the landmark Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 by the United Nations. It is five years after the Paris Climate Agreement, 25 years after the landmark, again, historic conference in Beijing on women, peace, and development, and the Beijing Plan of Action. This was supposed to be a year of taking stock of and looking into the future with optimism, based on this extraordinary achievement of multilateralism. Now, 2020 is the year of the COVID. But 2020 also, I would say, is the year which cries out for more multilateralism. It cries out for international cooperation. It cries out for sharing, for solidarity, for reaching out to the most vulnerable, and at the end of the day, for peace and for more sustainable development and resilience.

So, I’m worried, I’m very worried looking at some attempts to undermine multilateralism, attacks on the United Nations, on the World Health Organization, retreating from major international organizations like UNESCO and some others. And I do believe that challenges today, the depressing problems that we have as humanity, all of us, need more multilateralism and not less. And even if you take only the pandemic, the virus hits everybody, the rich and the poor, maybe more the poor, but it does not know geographical borders. It does not recognize religions, political orders, beliefs, civilizations. We are all united in this struggle.

When I see this withdrawal from this multilateral system, when I see attempts to solve problems unilaterally, I’m worried because this is not what humanity and the world needs today. We need international cooperation to reach sustainability, to achieve the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, to stop undermining biodiversity, and to protect our nation, and at the end of the day, to reach out to the most vulnerable in this world. So, this is the main task today. And not a single country, be the most powerful in the world, can achieve this unilaterally.

David Gosset: Thank you so much, Irina. You reminded us what has been happening for 75 years and how we built all together in 1945 the UN system, what happened at Bretton Woods and so on, and the fact that thanks to multilateralism, we have had such progress across the planet, by the way, since the end of the Second World War. So, in that context, Irina, how do you see the role of the UN to foster this collaborative spirit for development and peace?

Irina Bokova: I still believe that the UN is the only universal platform for international cooperation. It may not be ideal. Dag Hammarskjöld, one of the first Secretary Generals of the United Nations, was saying decades ago that the United Nations was not created to take us to heaven, but to save us from hell, and this is where all the efforts of the member states of the United Nations should be aimed at. There are so many, I would say, achievements of the United Nations, and I cannot enumerate all of them. But I do believe that we need a new social, economic and political compact in the world by political leaders, based and within the framework of the United Nations. Withdrawal is not the answer. Strengthening, supporting, reforming is the true answer to what is happening. I do believe still that the Charter of the United Nations is relevant. The normative setting of the United Nations system globally is still very relevant. So, instead of sitting outside and attacking, I believe incite a true and honest debate about the future of humanity, about the pressing challenges within this framework, is what is needed nowadays.

David Gosset: Thank you very much. You mentioned 1945. Of course, we are in 2020, and the world has changed tremendously. And one of the big differences between 2020 and 1945 is the role of China, a country that you know so well from within, because you came to China many, many, many times. In fact, you have been witnessing what some people call the Chinese renaissance. And that would be my third and last question, Irina. When you have been the Director-General of UNESCO, you have been developing what I consider to be an extremely important notion, the notion of new humanism, a notion actually which is still very relevant at the moment we have this conversation. Therefore, I would like to ask, how do you see the Chinese renaissance in the 21st century, contributing to this much needed new humanism for peace and development?

Irina Bokova: Thank you very much for mentioning my deep belief. When I was elected at UNESCO in 2009, it was immediately after the financial crisis. And I could see the terrible consequences of this crisis on people, on education systems, on health and on equalities. Today, even I’m a stronger believer in the need for this type of approach toward solving the problems in the world. And what China has been contributing in the last decades to this notion of human development is extraordinary.

Let me just mention that China is the only country in the world, according to the last Human Development Report of the United Nations system, published coincided with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, that China is the only country that in the span just of 40 years, reached an index of high human development index, starting from a very low human development index. In fact, China lifted out of poverty more than 700 million people since 1990. And today, it gives an example also of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

But the other aspect, and of course, it resonates very deeply with me from my experience of UNESCO, is also Chinese belief in culture. This Chinese, I would say, reconciliation of heritage, of history with modernity. And I think this is what the world needs today. Believing in the protection of heritage, China nowadays has the most heritage sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, is number one, 55 heritage sites, protecting also the intangible heritage, the tradition. It’s a wonderful example that when a country, when a people awakens up, it is through culture, it is through this deep, I would say, belief and respect for diversity and for culture. And this is the most humanistic, I would say, approach. I, of course, have often quoted many of Confucius ideas about humanism. He said that diversity is most precious and that harmony also is what brings value to human beings. I think this is a very strong message nowadays in strengthening, once again, our belief that we are one single humanity living in diversity, and I hope one day in harmony.

David Gosset: Thank you very much. This is so important what you just said, Irina. That is, of course, China is a political entity, of course, it’s a massive economy, but it is very important to remember that it is both an ancient and living civilization. And as such, it has a very important role to play to foster the new humanism you have tried to defend and that you are defending every day. I think, you and I, we believe in progress. Actually, the world has been progressing a lot, a lot. You spoke about poverty. You spoke about the status of women. You spoke about the environment. Of course, this is not perfect, and we need to go on to progress. It seems to me that if one wants to continue the progress, we would need also to foster not only the spirit of innovation, but also the spirit of collaboration. And in that context, your work is absolutely key, indispensable, I would say, as the work of UNESCO. So, thank you very much for your time, Irina, and to push with so many also other leaders for a world, a more collaborative, cooperative world. Thank you.

Irina Bokova: Thank you very much, David.