Interview: Can Chinese NGOs help companies obtain “social licenses” along the Belt and Road?

As a Chinese NGO stepped outside the country for the first time, it found itself caught in between Chinese companies and skeptical local communities.

One largely untold story in the narrative of China’s Going Out, which focuses on the government, SOEs and banks, is how its own burgeoning civil society, witnessing the huge impact China is making overseas, tries to catch up with the footsteps of state actors and make their own mark in shaping the country’s footprint abroad. With the daunting constraints NGOs are facing domestically, working in a foreign country offers only further challenges. They not only have to overcome the barriers of language and culture, but are also confronted by a more fundamental reality of their delicate relationship with the Chinese state.

What is unbeknownst to many international observers of China’s Belt & Road Initiative is that a few Chinese civil society groups have already ventured out, albeit slowly and quietly, and have set up a presence in a handful of key Belt and Road countries. In this space, there are government-backed NGOs such as China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, which has already set up development programs in 5 countries including Myanmar, Nepal and Ethiopia; professional environmental NGOs such as the Global Environmental Institute, and grassroots community development groups such as Social Resources Institute (SRI), the organization of focus in this interview.

Yue Jinfei, a young development worker had spent a few year in the Chinese countryside before joining SRI in 2014, was, in 2015, tasked with a project untried before in the organization’s history: with a few team members, he was to map the complicated web of interests around the controversial Letpadaung copper mine project in Myanmar. SRI had never had any experience working in another country.

Letpadaung was Asia’s largest hydrometallurgical copper mining project and one of the most controversial Chinese projects in Myanmar. Violent protests had disrupted the project, acquired in 2010, by Chinese state-owned company Wanbao, over issues of land acquisition and relocation of villages. The situation prompted President Thein Sein to appoint Aung Sang Suu Kyi, then the chairwoman of National League for Democracy, as the chair of an investigation commission tasked with giving a comprehensive assessment of the problems surrounding the project. The commission has since come up with a set of recommendations and rectifications that Wanbao is required to implement.

Yue Jinfei and his team made field trips to Myanmar between 2016 and 2017, talking to a wide range of stakeholders affected by the project to come up with a comprehensive report widely referenced by researchers, journalists and civil society workers taking an interest in China’s involvement in Myanmar. In a recent interview with Panda Paw Dragon Claw, he shared his reflections on the promises and limitations of Chinese civil society’s “Going Out”.

Jinfei
Yue Jinfei has worked in China’s countryside for years before joining an SRI team to map the interests around the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Myanmar.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (PPDC): Why did SRI decide to get involved in a Chinese overseas project like Letpadaung?

Yue Jinfei (YJF): In the early 2010s, SRI started working on poverty alleviation through sustainable agriculture in China. Within that space we did extensive research and consultancy on agricultural supply chains, including tea, coffee, tomato and cosmetic ingredients.

In 2014-15, that work brought us to Chinese agricultural investments in other countries. That’s when we first cast our sight overseas and we realized very few Chinese NGO peers had overseas experience, so there was not much we could build our work upon. It was uncharted waters. The realization made us think maybe it could be more valuable to take a broad viewpoint rather than focusing on sectoral issues. So we focused our research around how Chinese companies deal with local communities in other countries. As a first step, we were just trying to understand what’s going on, as Chinese civil society as a whole seemed to have very little clue of the situations beyond China’s borders.

We selected Myanmar as a starting point because of its complexity as a country. In 2014-15 the political transition was already under way but not quite completed. Other Chinese projects such as the Myitsone dam had already caused lots of controversy. But unlike the Myitsone dam, which was already halted, Letpadaung was still ongoing at that time. Its ups and downs provided a very good window into the dynamics of a Chinese overseas project. How it went from problem to at least partial solution is a source of knowledge and understanding that has guided us ever since.

PPDC: You adopted the Sustainable Livelihood Framework (SLF) in your report. Was it an attempt to show comprehensiveness and balance in your analysis?

YJF: The adoption of a research framework for us was also a learning process. At SRI, we were studying useful theories and tools in the field of rural development. We encountered the SLF developed by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Francis Fukuyama’s work on social capital. We felt they were very relevant for the Letpadaung case, which is a rural community affected by a major industrial project. Using the framework allowed us to capture multiple dimensions of those impacts, from human capital, natural capital to social capital, that collectively determined the quality of a rural livelihood which was really our main concern. It’s like dissecting a sparrow. And SLF provides a handy tool for doing that.

PPDC: Did the complexity of the local situation surprise you?

YJF: We picked Letpadaung exactly because of its complexity. So that was almost expected. But still I was struck by the complicated web of factors that contributed to conflicts in that case. There were dynamics between villagers who refused to move and those who agreed to relocate to Wanbao-built new villages (and therefore enjoyed new homes and new job prospects). And conflicts happened within each group. For example, in order to maintain collective leveraging power, villagers who remained would exert pressure on those who showed willingness to relocate. And in some cases, conflicts even manifested on household levels. I have seen siblings split over compensation and relocation. Someone who had nominal ownership of a piece of land might have received the compensation from Wanbao, but his or her sibling might be the person who actually occupied and worked the land and refused to vacate it.

How actors approach such complexities may reflect different (cultural) values. Chinese companies often consider household disputes a purely private matter (家务事) and refuse to intervene into the private sphere. But if you look at reports by Western civil society groups, they would point to such household disputes as the result of Chinese investment (or at least exacerbated by it): the disruption of traditional family structures by the injection of external resources.

As a Chinese NGO, how should we look at such problems? I don’t have an answer yet. But it did remind me that many phenomena that we had taken for granted in China for the past decades, such as the disintegration of family structures by external economic forces, could become problematic issues overseas.

Letpadaung mapping
SRI’s mapping of stakeholders involved in and affected by the Letpadaung project

PPDC: What did you plan to do with such an analysis of the complex community-level impact of Wanbao’s project?

YJF: As an organization we are probably too research-minded [laughs] that we were simply studying the situation for the sake of understanding it. We did not have mature ideas of how we should utilize the result of the research and apply its findings.

But we did have a general direction. In rural development work within China, the methodology of participatory community development, first introduced by Western development groups, has taken roots among NGOs. Many organizations use such methods in China to facilitate the expression of community needs and inform their response. Is it possible to introduce this to corporate community relations management? We knew that some companies had introduced stakeholder analysis into their CSR work. But their way of stakeholder communication is far from the participatory method development workers are familiar with.

Here we encountered a fundamental dilemma that is still haunting me today: the way you treat minority interest in a situation like this. I would call it the “20% problem”. If 20% of the villagers refuse to move no matter what the Chinese company does, what should we do? Wanbao in the end chose to ignore them, as their opposition to the project no longer posed a substantive threat to the operation of the plant and the majority of the community had already started over in new villages. This may be a rational decision in a business sense. But as a Chinese NGO, our years of work in this field tells us that even a small minority voice represents intrinsic human rights. So how should we play the bridging role that we set out to play in a situation like this?

PPDC: Did you have a conversation about this with Wanbao?

YJF: Our access to the company wasn’t as good as some business groups. We were not able to enter the core premises of Wanbao’s plant in Letpadaugn . But we did visit its Yangon office (which was Public Relations oriented) and interviewed them about the project. To some extent our relationship with the company was also defined by our stance on the minority issue. I was reminded not just once by my friends with close ties to the business sector that openly expressing sympathy with “the 20%” would negatively affect future communication with companies. On the other hand, we were also sometimes warned, albeit friendly, by civil society partners in Myanmar that it could alienate local communities if we appeared too cozy with Chinese companies – we’d be seen as their invited guest. We were really caught in the middle.

Wanbao was quite sensitive of how we represented its practices, so they did provide three rounds of feedback in our drafting process and provided information about what they were doing, especially in areas where they felt they were misunderstood. But on the substantive level, we didn’t think our study would make much of a difference on the project level as Wanbao was quite confident that their problems were already settled.

PPDC: Do you agree?

YJF: Maybe their Letpadaung operation is now unscathed by remaining opposition. But recently, as Wanbao has started prospecting for a new mine in the nearby region, they have met with fierce resistance from local communities. Many simply wouldn’t let Wanbao personnel in. That speaks to a continued lack of social license to operate in the wider neighborhood, despite all the work Wanbao has done.

PPDC: How did the local community and civil society groups receive you?

YJF: We were introduced to some civil society groups in Myanmar through partners and then our reach just snowballed to a wider network. Some of the NGOs were research oriented while others, such as Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), were active on the ground. Through them we were then led to community based organizations (CBO) working on very local levels in Letpadaung and also community members.

But as a Chinese NGO our interaction with the local community was shadowed by the larger context of China as an authoritarian state. There was always the perception that, no matter whether you are a company or an NGO, you somehow represented the Chinese government. That’s why our local partners often treated us with a level of caution, as they were unsure what our real intention was. This kind of mistrust has only been exacerbated by China’s physical closeness and its assertiveness in recent years. I would even say that this misgiving towards China was much more intense than towards Japan, which actually invaded and occupied Myanmar during WWII. In Myanmar eyes, that invasion is now firmly in the past, while China’s impact is present.

When at the end of 2018 the Chinese embassy in Yangon made controversial comments about public perceptions of the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, we immediately felt the heat while doing field work in Myanmar. We were asked a lot of questions by local contacts and some of our scheduled meetings or interviews couldn’t happen as local contacts got suspicious of us collecting information about their attitudes and perceptions at that sensitive moment.

Our acts were closely scrutinized, sometimes even when we were not physically in Myanmar. Information about a recent workshop that we held in Beijing on corporate-civil society relations in Myanmar was widely circulated in Myanmar’s NGO circles after someone probably Google translated our workshop introduction from Chinese. Criticism of us “selling information” to Chinese companies arose just because we shared our interview findings at the workshop where corporate representatives were present.

PPDC: Given this situation, do you think Chinese civil society groups can play a role in obtaining social license for China’s overseas involvements?

YJF: As individual organizations, I think it’s difficult. But collectively as a group, there is a possibility for Chinese NGOs to build the foundations of local public support for or acceptance of constructive Chinese involvement in the region.

Japanese civil society serves as a good example for us. With Japan’s deep involvement in Southeast Asia, Japanese NGOs have long ventured out into the region. On the one hand, there are Japanese NGOs doing traditional aid work such as building roads, setting up schools and digging up wells; on the other hand, there are watchdog groups like Mekong Watch, which focuses on Japan’s environmental and social impact in the region. What’s unique about the Japanese civil society presence in the region is its “depth”. It’s not rare for Japanese NGO workers to plug in a rural area of Myanmar for months or even years, learn the local language and really advocate for the local communities. How many of us have that conviction even when working in the poor countryside of China? With that kind of deep involvement, local communities associate “Japan” with generosity and benevolence.

This level of public trust cannot be built by a single NGO. It takes long term cultivation by an ecosystem of different groups. It doesn’t matter if CFPA only focuses on donations of goods in Myanmar and not on corporate accountability. As long as their work creates recognition among local communities of what “Chinese” do, other Chinese NGOs can build on this acceptance of our presence to further their areas of work. My hope is that through this collective effort, a diverse China will be more visible. People will discover that China is not a monolithic entity and that its civil society is here to help for the greater good.

 

Author: TJMa

A blogger at large. My areas of interest include China's overseas footprint, environmental governance and online public opinion. Twitter: @TJMa_beijing

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