China, the United Nations and Esperanto

In his article “China and the Esperanto Movement”, Gerald Chan raised the issue of language barriers within the United Nations; the Chinese solution to the language issue is to use Esperanto. Chinese Mandarin has long been one of the six official languages of the United Nations, which also include Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Chinese was established as an official language in 1946 during the beginning of the United Nations, as the Chinese state, then controlled by the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party.

While the inclusion of six official languages may appear on the surface to create linguistic inclusivity, not all the official languages are used equally. English and French are used by the United Nations Secretariat and are used in day-to-day professional exchanges. Chinese is perhaps the least used of the six languages as while it has the largest population of speakers, it is primarily limited to China and Taiwan, which does not hold a seat. The lack of Mandarin used in the United Nations and more globally has at times been viewed by the Chinese as a weakness and is not on par with China’s international status. In other transnational organizations, Chinese delegations have experienced issues due to translation and language issues. However, Chinese is not an easily accessible language – it is challenging for non-native speakers to learn both to speak and to read and is not frequently taught outside of China. As such, a movement has risen within China for Esperanto to be made the official language of the United Nations.

This movement is arguably motivated in two ways, and both provide great benefit to China’s international status. Firstly, making Esperanto the official language of the United Nations would move the language primacy away from Europe and more importantly, the United States. Secondly, promoting Esperanto is in the interest of other developing countries who struggle for influence in the United Nations, and would thus further establish China as a leader for developing countries.

Renowned political scientist Joseph Nye has constructed the concept of “soft power”, which he defined as “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.” Soft power has long been favored by the Chinese government in lieu of hard military power, which has been limited since the end of the Cold War to minor flare-ups in the South China Sea. It can be evidenced in China’s significant economic support in the Middle East and Africa primarily, where large sums of Chinese money have been invested in developing countries as a means of diplomacy. If Nye’s theory of soft power is applied to Chinese support of Esperanto, there is a clear benefit for the Chinese as many developing countries suffer from “language hegemony and discrimination” in the United Nations. China’s mere support of adopting Esperanto certainly indicates China’s further commitment to bringing developing countries further into the United Nations. As such, China’s desire to adopt Esperanto as the official language raises questions about if it is out of a genuine belief in Esperanto as a uniting language or rather another way in which China can gain support for its position in the international community and build closer ties.      

Chan, Gerald. “China and the Esperanto Movement.” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, no. 15 (1986): 1–18.

Nye, Joseph, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

The United Nations, Official Languages, <>.

The United Nations, Multilingualism, <>.