Qu Dongyu received a total of 108 votes out of 191 votes cast, constituting a majority in the first round. Photo by: ©FAO / Giulio Napolitano

BRUSSELS — Qu Dongyu, China’s vice minister of agriculture and rural affairs, was elected director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Sunday, overcoming two other candidates backed by the European Union and the United States.

In the lead-up to the vote at the U.N. agency’s conference in Rome, Italy, the U.S. circulated a nonpaper to FAO members, obtained by Devex, in which it stated that “our primary objective is to beat the Chinese candidate,” citing “strong concerns about Chinese leadership at multinational organizations.”

It encouraged members to vote for Qu’s competitors — the Georgian and French entrants — “whomever is best placed to succeed in any given round of voting.”

“Chinese leaders at INTERPOL, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have demonstrated a bias towards Chinese foreign policy and a lack of transparency and accountability,” the nonpaper stated. “This is in keeping with public statements by a senior Chinese official that Chinese nationals working in international organizations are expected to align with Chinese policy without question. Specific to FAO, the Chinese DG candidate has shown a blatant disregard for critical issues, such as those involving sexual harassment and whistleblower protection.”

The conference room broke into applause Sunday as it was announced that Qu had won in the first round with 108 of the 191 votes lodged via secret ballot. Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, supported by France and the European Union, garnered 71 votes, and the U.S.-supported Davit Kirvalidze, from Georgia, 12.

“I’m very grateful to my motherland. Without 40 years of successful reform and open-door policy I would not have been who I am,” Qu told the conference after his win. His official resumé lists him as “proficient” in English but poor language skills had been one of the criticisms from detractors — and he is, at times, difficult to understand.

The 55-year-old committed to the “original aspirations, mandates, and mission of the organization,” adding “I will uphold the principles of fairness, openness, justice, and transparency, remaining impartial and neutral.”

When the candidates were questioned by FAO members in April, Qu said his priorities included tackling hunger and poverty, digital rural development, and better land design via transformation of agricultural production.

The U.S. also asked Qu how he could guarantee he would not seek authorization from the Chinese government for his decisions at FAO.

“I am a professional scientist,” replied Qu, who spent eight years as vice president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and, in 1996, earned a doctorate in agricultural and environmental sciences from Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands.

“I am not a typical Chinese official, you know that, yeah? For FAO, China is [one of the] founding members of FAO, they have [to] follow the U.N. charter and FAO regulations and rules ... You have to believe my professionalism because I got education from Europe and American and China,” he said.

In an editorial last week, the journal Nature regretted the influence of “behind-the-scenes bargaining” in the election, citing reports of China leveraging investments under its Belt and Road Initiative to win votes for Qu.

“We understand there have been instances of pressure during this campaign, and delegates should not fall prey to such tactics,” the U.S. nonpaper added. “The secret-ballot process protects the anonymity of each vote, and we must preserve the integrity of this election process.”

An FAO source who requested anonymity to discuss the politics of the election campaign told Devex that France and the EU had sent a large group of staffers to Rome to lobby for Geslain-Lanéelle.

Meanwhile, mystery still surrounds the withdrawal of India’s candidate, Ramesh Chand, via a letter from the Indian government to FAO on June 13, after months of campaigning. “It seems that it was a decision taken by the prime minister, not really by the campaign,” the FAO source said.

Another dynamic in the race was the role played by the outgoing Graziano da Silva, who is finishing his second and final four-year term. “The strong impression from the French side [is] that he’s favored China,” the FAO source said. “China has complained also that he looks like he’s favoring France, but the more vocal on this has been France.”

After the vote, the same source said there was a mixture of “excitement and anxiety” among staff about any new director-general, with “the added element of curiosity about a DG from China, which of course is new for us.”

None of the three candidates responded to requests for comment on Sunday. Qu will take up his new role on August 1.

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.