From Pioneers to Brokers: How a diverse Chinese diaspora facilitates the Belt and Road in Lao

A lively snapshot of those who lubricate deals and exchanges that make the Belt and Road possible

By Juliet Lu and Wanjing (Kelly) Chen

There is something about China – perhaps its size, perhaps its foreignness to Western audiences, or perhaps the simple fact that it is a new global economic power – that lends to vast oversimplifications and doomsday portrayals of the country’s global integration. China’s increasing presence overseas is without doubt one of the topics on which this oversimplification gets the most play. Summary statistics and breathless reports give the sense that Chinese firms parachute into countries, checks in hand, and unilaterally determine what to build, grow, and extract. But in order to understand how China’s global integration is unfolding on the ground, we need to ask a few questions. How does this emerging wave of investment actually take root? Through what channels does Chinese money flow, and through whose hands?

Investing in new country contexts is a laborious process that requires a diverse set of actors who can assemble disparate resources and apply niche expertise to carefully facilitate investment deals. Long before the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced in 2013, waves of Chinese migrants struck out into the world to make a living beyond China’s borders. These pioneers are now positioning themselves as brokers to the various investment projects encapsulated in the BRI, serving as pivotal in-country links but also taking advantage of newer, more naïve arrivals. They pave the way for the current day globalization of Chinese capitalism with their years of experience, knowledge of cross-cultural business and cultural norms, and social and cultural capital in host countries.

We believe it is important to understand China’s global integration not only from the point of view of elites, but also from the ‘civilian perspective’ (民间视角). Our field research aims to uncover some of these perspectives from a handful of Chinese migrant pioneers-turned-brokers of Chinese capital in Lao. They are not the face of Chinese investment which normally comes to mind – polished government officials and suit-wearing state owned company CEOs. Instead, we point to the hidden army of people who draw, direct, and enable the flows of capital into new contexts and unsettle the tendency (which dominates coverage of the BRI) of grouping Chinese actors into one monolithic category.

The View from China’s Backyard

Although a majority share of Chinese global investment has been in Southeast Asia, reporting and research on China in the region has been noticeably less alarmist and negative than that on China in Africa and other regions of the world. This is partly because Chinese traders and investors are neither new nor the only foreign investors active in the region. As early as the 16th century, sojourners and settlers from coastal China had already formed enclaved communities across the region through sea-based emigration. Over land, upland ethnic groups in southwest China were particularly mobile and heavily engaged in trade with their neighbors in mainland Southeast Asia. More recently, during the Reform and Opening Era, the Chinese state relied heavily upon the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia (referred to as the “Bamboo Network”) for investment capital to kick start the country’s economic reform and eventual dramatic rise.

The Lao PDR is an especially interesting country from which to examine the role of the Chinese diaspora in the making of the BRI. A diverse set of communities have come from China and settled in Lao during different periods, from long established groups of Yunnanese traders who migrated generations ago and now refer to themselves as the ‘Ho,’ to Lao refugees who fled to China during the civil war in the 70s and 80s and returned in the 90s to resettle or just establish trade links, to more recent arrivals seeking a wide range of economic opportunities. The Chinese community in Lao is thus highly diverse; they have come from a mixture of places within China, arrived at varying times for different reasons, and hold contrasting class positions and occupations. But as the country’s global economic import grows, this diverse group of pioneers position themselves strategically and rearticulate their links back to China as they come into new roles as bridges between Lao and China.

View from a hill in Luang Namtha, photo supplied by the authors

The Chen Family and Chinese Business Associations in Lao

Chen Li *, had been doing business in Lao for over two decades by the time we met during my preliminary fieldwork interviews. I* stumbled upon his company headquarters, a converted two-room Lao home in the tiny provincial capital of Luang Namtha. He was sitting inside in a tank top pulled up to rest on his belly, pants rolled to his knees exposing a pair of pink plastic slippers. Despite the tropical heat, I sipped steaming tea with him under the light buzz of a ceiling fan in his office and we talked about how he had come to Lao. Lao Chen (老陈), as he is referred to by those familiar with him, is the son of migrants from Hunan Province who came to the borderlands of Yunnan to tap rubber in the 1960s. His parents answered Chairman Mao’s call to secure the border by working on the rubber plantations of Yunnan’s State Farms – former border military units turned state agribusiness operations after 1949. Like workers in most state-owned enterprises, Lao Chen enjoyed a certain level of security as a State Farms worker but wages were abysmal and would never allow him to build a better life for his children.

So, in the mid 1990s, he scraped together enough savings to strike out and begin a modest trade enterprise importing fertilizer and rice seedlings from China to sell to Lao farmers. Soon he began lending maize seeds on credit and in the early 2000s, turning back to his roots in rubber, Lao Chen managed to secure a small plot of Lao state land to establish a rubber plantation, which he supplemented by contracting nearby villagers to grow their own plots which he helped them manage. By the time we met in 2017, his hair had begun to gray and he had hired Lao staff and a few relatives to run the day-to-day operations of his trade enterprise. His son had also moved from China to take over the rubber plantation. “I just come to check on things occasionally,” he explained as he showed me his border pass which allows Lao and Chinese citizens like him who reside within a few kilometers of the border to cross between the two countries for short-range trips lasting up to 10 days without having to apply for a visa. “It’s convenient enough to come, just an hour or so with the new road” he shrugged, “but my wife is tired of coming here all the time … and keeps asking me when these investments will pan out and we can retire.”

Just as we were ending our interview, Lao Chen’s cell phone rang and he paced around the front porch chatting loudly in his native Hunan dialect as I cracked sunflower seeds and drank my tea. After hanging up, Lao Chen insisted I join him for lunch and promised I’d meet other Chinese investors to interview – “don’t be polite” (别客气) he chided as he opened the passenger door of his truck for me. “Lunch is at our local Hunan Business Association, I’m the founding member” he beamed, and we sped off down the cracked road a few short blocks to one end of the town’s main drag.

I had imagined something akin to an American Chamber of Commerce, perhaps an office building adorned with state slogans of Sino-Lao friendship. Instead, we pulled into the dusty yard of another converted Lao home next to a few haphazardly constructed meeting rooms and a dilapidated sign that announced in peeling letters the business association in Lao and Chinese. Off the house, a dining area had been built with a few wooden beams and a corrugated aluminum roof. The table was set with a combination of Hunan and Yunnan staples, and a few Lao style salads with bottles of Beerlao served with ice. Lao Chen introduced me hastily before diving into a hurry of handshakes and gossip.

As I have learned is common in Chinese migrant communities across Lao and elsewhere, Lao Chen’s business association was less of a formal organization than a loose group of friends from the same origin province in China. In other towns in Lao I would encounter the Liaoning Province Business Association, the Guangdong Province Business Association, and many other groups built around common ties back home. Lao Chen explained that they provided some formal services for modest fees, such as procuring visas and business licenses, and he often used the association to legitimize his role facilitating connections between Chinese investors and Lao state officials or trade partners. But for the most part, the association simply served as a loose organization of fellow Hunan migrants with a diverse set of business operations in that area of Lao.

As we ate, the group exchanged lively banter, gave advice and shared complaints about doing business in Lao. One woman there who I had already met earlier that month on the bus from the Chinese border had come with her husband twelve years before and started selling farm equipment until they had enough capital to shift to selling Chinese electronics. She complained about how luohou (落后, backwards) Lao is as she laid SIM cards out on the table for the two men next to her to pick through for a lucky phone number. They had just arrived from Xishuangbanna to sell a truck full of construction supplies, and were asking her about the road conditions on the way to the next district and what to do if stopped by Lao police and asked to pay transport fees. Lao Chen’s younger cousin had also just arrived from Hunan at Lao Chen’s prompting, and while he too referred to Lao as luohou, he fostered a boyish excitement about it. He made a grand performance of recounting the wildlife he’d bought at the town market – bamboo rats and a few lizards, photos of which he showed us proudly on his phone – and eagerly asked others about life in this remote border region. He had found some success in the real estate market back home and was predicting grand profits if he could figure out the path where the Kunming-Vientiane Railway (the flagship Belt and Road project in Lao) would run and procure land in those areas.

The man sitting across from me was particularly boisterous – he had been hired by one of the Chinese construction companies contracted to help with the train construction to facilitate their negotiations with the Lao government to import equipment and supplies. He laughed at some of the company boss’s misconceptions about doing business in Lao – “I told him, everything in Lao is slow! Not like in China, here you cannot do anything fast” – and boasted proudly of the company’s reliance on his Lao state connections. Next to me sat the oldest man there, my guess put him in his early 70s. He sported a worn jacket and matching slacks and introduced himself as the deputy head of the association after Lao Chen. He smiled broadly and explained that, although he had lived in Lao for almost twenty years, he’d never learned to speak Lao. “I have studied how to drink Beer Lao instead! So I know how to do business here just fine!” He clinked our glasses together, finished his beer in one gulp, then placed it back on the table empty with a laugh.

80th anniversary gala of a Chinese school, photo supplied by the authors

Dissidents in Disguise: politics and profit along the BRI

Not all Chinese business community gatherings in Lao are so lively and pleasant as the casual lunch orchestrated by Lao Chen. In November 2017, I found myself attending a dinner gala for the 80th anniversary of a Chinese school in Vientiane where some guests found it hard to enjoy themselves. For A Zhen, the atmosphere of the gala went sour as the celebratory performances became increasingly infused with Chinese communist ideology. As singers at the gala began performing Me and My Country, one of the most famous propaganda songs in China, A Zhen decided to go outside to clear his mind.

An established businessman in his 50s, A Zhen stood on the porch of the grand event hall, trying to calm his critical thoughts with the help of a cigarette. “There is too much patriotism in there,” he whispered to me as I snuck out of the gala to join him for a cigarette. Having known each other for a while, he had grown quite candid with me about his general discontent with the politics of the Chinese state. Yet he kept a tight lip around his other Chinese contacts. If revealed, his opinions would be devastating for his current career as broker, which allowed him to extract commissions and kickbacks for fixing deals for newly arrived Chinese investors. Given that some of his top clients are Chinese state-owned enterprises looking to establish projects in hydropower, logging, and mining under the Belt and Road Initiative, the cost of being vocally critical could be huge.

A Zhen represents a particular segment of overseas Chinese who are faced with day-to-day struggle to reconcile their personal politics and economic interests. He is one of many descendants of Chinese migrants who came to Lao throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, long before China became the People’s Republic of China. Many of this community speak Teochew and Hokkien and originate from two coastal regions of China known historically as the cradle for Chinese traders who set out across Southeast Asia. Individuals like A Zhen were mostly raised in families and communities with strong transnational business traditions. In an era when Chinese capital is flooding into Lao at an unprecedented speed and volume, those who have managed to preserve their Chinese language capacity and cultural affinity have used their entrepreneurial spirit to quickly carve out a new career path as brokers. They possess the cultural and social capital necessary to navigate Lao’s opaque regulatory system and seal big deals, like contracts for hydropower project worth millions of dollars.

A Zhen just recently managed to land such an investment project for a Chinese state-owned enterprise and took 5% of the total contract value as commission. His ability to comprehend the Lao cultural subtext in important business meetings with state officials greatly facilitated the process throughout. More importantly, he had inside access in government through his half-brother. This allowed him to gauge dynamics within key state bureaus that regulate foreign investment in energy sector. Such nuanced cultural familiarity and deep social connections are rarely found amongst the more recent wave of Chinese migrants in Lao who came in the last two decades. Therefore, while most brokers are preoccupied with providing tedious services like securing visas and renting local offices for investors (services which earn them relatively meager incomes) A Zhen facilitates big deals and, consequently, secures big paychecks.

Still, for descendants of Chinese pioneers who settled in Lao a century ago, a successful career as broker often requires repressing one’s personal political opinions. Due to their unique position in Lao history, and migratory life journeys, this segment of overseas Chinese are generally highly critical of the PRC regime. Many of them suffered a turbulent youth due to the Lao communist takeover in 1975. During decolonization after WWII, Lao sank into a civil war between the American-backed Lao and communist Pathet Lao. Teochew and Hokkien Chinese stood firmly with the Lao Royal Family. The vast majority, including A Zhen’s family, fled Lao in fear of communist persecution when the Lao Royal Family lost the war. They packed up important documents and portable valuable items before running across the border into Thailand. Thus, the word ‘communism’ alone brings back terrible memories of when their community was dispersed, families were separated, property was confiscated, and the place they called home was permanently changed.

Implicitly or explicitly, such experiences underpin their negative feelings toward Chinese communism. Moreover, the nomadic lives many of them have lived since fleeing Lao have further exposed them to liberal ideas that are incompatible with PRC ideologies. A Zhen for one, received an education in the United States and spent a considerable period of time living in France, Japan, and Taiwan before returning to Lao in 2012. A pro-democracy poet who writes against authoritarianism in private, he has struggled more than others in his everyday encounters with investors fresh out of China, who are deeply patriotic and enthusiastically draw upon PR China’s state propaganda – especially in promoting their projects within the context of the Belt and Road.

When our brief smoking session ended, A Zhen returned to the gala with a reserved smile on his face. He rejoined a crowd of people and politely if stiffly clapped at appropriate moments. After all, in the struggle between moneyed interests and liberal political beliefs, the former seems to always win out. There are thus many dissidents in disguises like A Zhen, who diligently work to facilitate the global expansion of Chinese capitalism today.

Viewing the BRI from the Ground Up

Chen Li and A Zhen are just two members of a diverse group of pioneering emigrants and sojourners who came from China to Lao a generation before the new wave migrants now arriving. After years of modestly making a place for themselves in the slow Lao economy, they now scrap together a wealth of local connections and years of experience to facilitate the ambitious plans of incoming Chinese investors mobilized by the Belt and Road Initiative. These pioneers-turned-brokers are pivotal links. It is based on their own past experiences that new investors’ expectations are set, through their family ties and established networks that Chinese capital connects with the Lao state, and on their advice and facilitation that a huge variety of deals across sectors take shape on the ground.

Their brokerage activities, however, are not underpinned by a unifying loyalty towards Beijing, nor do they respond to the state’s directives above their own. Instead, they are driven by a multiplicity of interests, dominated by their own quest for wealth and shaped by localized ties and personal histories. They reflect the complex nature of cross-border relationships and the evolution of the Belt and Road over time. The emergence of pioneers-turned-brokers like Chen Li and A Zhen amidst the rolling out of Belt and Road Initiative serves as a reminder that China’s global integration is a process which presents complicated contradictions and the need to negotiate personal, practical and historical realities.

* On the request of the authors, the authorship of respective segments of the article has not been stated.

* Pseudonyms are used in this article to protect the identity of the interlocutors.

* Please refer to the links here and here for questions concerning the usage of “Lao” in the article.

Juliet Lu is a doctoral student at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management with a focus on political ecology. Wanjing (Kelly) Chen is a doctoral student at University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Department of Geography. Her current research focuses on the globalizing processes of contemporary Chinese political economy.


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”.

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.


The Cambodia Conundrum: The Belt and Road, private capital and China’s “non-interference” policy

How are China’s private companies shaping the contour of the Belt and Road Initiative? Cambodia provides an important example.

By Mark Grimsditch

Since the early 2000s, Chinese overseas investment has been driven by its formidable state machinery, financed by policy banks and developed in large part by state-owned enterprises (SOEs). China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) continues this trend, and the export of a development formula dominated by state capital is a key feature of the initiative. However, China’s private capital, though historically much smaller in comparison to state players, is increasingly active overseas and is now participating in and shaping the BRI, influencing China’s diplomatic and economic involvement in those countries. In some countries, public perception of the BRI is heavily influenced by private investments from China. If state capital signals China’s strategic intentions for the Belt and Road, private capital points to its economic vitality and the complex motivations behind the controversial initiative.

Cambodia is a case in point.

Cambodia 1
A Belt and Road poster in Phnom Penh, photo by Mark Grimsditch

Investment in Cambodia is increasing rapidly, with Chinese capital surging in recent years into the manufacturing, construction, real estate and tourism industries. This investment has generated employment and contributed to Cambodia’s continued rapid economic growth, while state-backed finance has strengthened the country’s previously fragile infrastructure. Yet this has also generated significant concern. Chinese companies have over the past decade been connected to a number of high-profile controversial projects, some of which have been linked to land conflicts, displacement of local communities and environmental harms. Over the past three years, a surge in the number of private Chinese investors has created unease among local people.

While the China-Cambodia diplomatic relationship has gone from strength to strength in recent years, Cambodia’s relations with the US and Europe became increasingly fraught in the aftermath of the controversial 2013 general elections. While China has unsurprisingly remained silent on these issues, the European Union is now in the process of considering the withdrawal of crucial trade preferences. A withdrawal is likely to have a massive impact on Cambodia’s garment industry, which is dominated by private Chinese actors and deeply intertwined with companies producing materials in China. As a result, China may now find itself in the uncomfortable position of maintaining adherence to the “non-interference” policy while also ensuring that the conditions stay in place for the industrial expansion that are a central focus of Chinese state and private capital flowing into the country.

The scale of Chinese investment in Cambodia

Chinese investment accounted for 23% of all foreign investment in Cambodia during the 2000-2017 period, making it by far the largest foreign investor. Statistics from China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) illustrate the formidable influx of Chinese investment to Cambodia. Starting at less than US$30 million in 2003, officially recorded investment from mainland China exceeded US$744 million in 2017.

Source: Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China (2018)

Even though Cambodia was an early backer of the BRI, announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, Chinese investment in Cambodia has fluctuated since, due in part to uncertainty around the contested 2013 national elections, which were followed by almost a year of unrest. After stabilizing in around 2015, investment began to climb again in 2016, at a similar rate to that prior to the existence of the BRI. Concessional loans from China’s Eximbank, which mostly support public infrastructure works, also fell from 2013 and have since resumed pre-BRI rates of growth.

In Cambodia, there is a relatively clear distinction between where Chinese state funding and private investments are going. Concessional lending has supported major infrastructure works such as roads, bridges, power plants and irrigation projects, which are almost exclusively developed by Chinese SOEs. Private companies, on the other hand dominate the manufacturing, tourism and real estate sectors.

The tidal wave of Chinese private investment

In the late 2000s to early 2010s, much of China’s private investment was directed towards large-scale agriculture projects. This was facilitated by Cambodia’s investment-friendly economic land concession (ELC) mechanism, through which domestic and foreign investors could receive up to 10,000 hectares for agro-industrial plantations and processing facilities. Analysis of official documents shows that out of 273 concessions known to have been granted up to 2018, 15% were registered to Chinese companies, with Vietnamese companies holding 19%.

Source: Licadho (2018)

The ELC system became notorious for its links to land conflict and deforestation, with villagers evicted from residential properties, agricultural lands seized and converted to private plantations, waterways diverted and polluted, and indigenous communities cut off from their ancestral lands. Various concession holders came into conflict with local people, including companies from China, such as Hengfu Group, a private company from Guangzhou, and holder of the largest sugar concession in Cambodia, which has been embroiled in conflict with local communities for over 5 years.

Conflicts around ELCs and the animosity that land encroachment and seizures created among the Cambodian population eventually led to a moratorium on the granting of new concessions in 2012 and a review of existing concessions found to be in breach of the law. This moratorium has held, and while a number of Chinese concessions have been developed, anecdotal evidence indicates that many investors abandoned or sold their concessions. Although many concessions were not developed as planned, communities were nonetheless impacted by the privatization of lands and forests that they previously utilized, as they were left cleared of forest, passed on to new investors, or reclaimed by the state.

The rapid rate at which Chinese private finance poured into these large-scale plantations, and the rate at which these concessions were then abandoned or sold is indicative of a key feature of this type of private capital: it is often speculative and sensitive to recipient country opportunities, risks and changing circumstances. Chinese investment is not unique in the sense that it responds to opportunities and risks in the same way as all private capital does. As the risks associated with these investments increased, large-scale agroindustry became a lower priority for Chinese companies. Instead of investing directly in plantations, Chinese companies are now focusing on smaller farm investments and trade in agricultural commodities, which removes investors somewhat from direct exposure to land conflicts with local communities. The bulk of Chinese private investment has now shifted from large land-intensive projects towards manufacturing, real estate, tourism and casinos, industries connected closely to a rising and more mobile Chinese middle class.

Hand in glove: The state-private nexus

China’s state capital often relies on the private sector to help achieve developmental goals such as creating manufacturing jobs in recipient countries, and SOEs also benefit from contracting work on private invested projects. Cambodia provides a useful example of how China’s state capital and private interests intertwine overseas. Although investment in real estate is driven by private investors, in many cases construction work is sub-contracted to some of China’s largest SOEs. For example, the logo of China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC), one of the largest construction companies in the world, is ubiquitous across Cambodia’s capital and Sihanoukville, where the company provides construction services for many private property developers.

Nowhere is the symbiotic relationship clearer than in the manufacturing sector of Preah Sihanouk Province. Sihanoukville, the provincial capital, has become a magnet for Chinese investors, and the sprawling property, tourism and casino projects have received extensive media coverage. However, the role of state-supported Chinese capital in the industrialization of the province has received much less attention.

Through China’s aid program, the Eximbank has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in concessional loans for a number of high-voltage transmission lines across Cambodia. Several of these projects were constructed by state-owned China National Heavy Machinery Corporation (CHMC), including new powerlines linking Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, which pass by a number of Chinese invested power and manufacturing projects, including coal plants located along the coast.

One such coal plant is developed by a joint venture of Cambodia International Investment Development Group (CIIDG), a local company owned by a powerful ruling party senator, and Erdos Hongjun, a private company from Inner Mongolia. Once fully operational the plant will have a capacity of 700 MW and a dedicated line connecting to the Sihanoukville SEZ to ensure stable power to the factories there. This is the largest SEZ in the country, and once again, is a joint venture involving CIIDG and another private Chinese conglomerate, Hongdou Group, specialized in garment manufacturing. It began development in 2008, and despite pre-dating the Belt and Road by five years, it is referred to by the Cambodian and Chinese officials as a model cooperation project under the BRI.

Aside from this major SEZ, Chinese state-financed power and transport infrastructure runs by at least three other joint Cambodian-Chinese economic zones. This includes the Stung Hav SEZ, which in 2018 signed a cooperation agreement with state-owned Metallurgical Corporation of China. The recently commenced Eximbank financed Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway will also pass by this cluster of SEZs en route to Sihanoukville City. Beyond these specific projects, China has also supported the development of feasibility studies for new railways, and state-owned giant China Merchants Group has commenced a study to develop a masterplan for Cambodia’s port development.

This chain of projects illustrates how Chinese state and commercial interests can align, with expensive state-backed infrastructure investments opening opportunities to promote Chinese enterprises to go global, in the process exporting industrial capacity and taking advantage of lower operating costs. This serves Chinese commercial interests, as companies gain access to new markets and bases for global production at a time when domestic economic growth is slowing, but also potentially feeds into Cambodia’s industrialization process, which in the medium-term seeks to diversify away from low-tech manufacturing.

China and the “Everything But Arms” conundrum

A central motivation for private Chinese companies such as Hongdou Group to establish industrial bases in Cambodia is to access the preferential trade schemes that Cambodia benefits from as a lower income country.

Since the early 2000s, Cambodia has maintained annual GDP growth of around 7% (with the exception of the dip experienced during the 2007-2008 global financial crisis). This growth is fueled by Cambodia’s export economy, the backbone of which is Cambodia’s garment and footwear industry. In 2018 the sector employed an estimated 800,000 workers and accounted for 74% of the country’s exports. Chinese owners account for the largest share of Cambodia’s garment factories. Although exact figures are hard to come by, almost 70% of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) members are from the Greater China region: 249 from mainland China, 111 from Taiwan and 60 from Hong Kong. Membership statistics from 2008 show how rapidly mainland Chinese companies have come to dominate the industry.

Source: GMAC (2008, 2019)

The European Union’s Everything But Arms (EBA) and the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) are two major trade schemes that Cambodia’s export oriented economy benefits from. Both provide tariff free market access to products made in Cambodia, and manufacturers of garments, footwear and accessories have been a major beneficiary. In 2017, Europe accounted for 46% of these exports, followed by the United States with 24%.

In October 2018, the European Trade Commissioner took the drastic step of announcing that it was sending an emergency high-level mission to review the situation in Cambodia with regards to what it termed “a clear deterioration of human rights and labour rights”. This followed on from EU missions to the country that observed “serious and systemic violations” of freedom of expression, labour rights and freedom of association, in addition to long-running concerns regarding workers’ rights and land-grabbing. In February 2019, the Commission announced it had commenced the temporary withdrawal of EBA status from Cambodia. Following on from this, the US Congress introduced the Cambodia Trade Act of 2019, which called for a review of Cambodia’s GSP status. Under the GSP, tariff free trade was introduced for luggage, backpacks, handbags and wallets, which contributed to a 25% increase in Cambodia’s trade with the U.S. in 2018.

Several of those interviewed for this article suggested that EBA withdrawal would benefit China by bringing Cambodia closer into its orbit. However, given the extent to which Chinese companies are embedded in Cambodia’s export-oriented manufacturing sector, these developments are likely to be a serious concern to China. A large percentage of Cambodian exports to Europe and the U.S. are produced by Chinese-owned companies. Moreover, companies in mainland China could also lose a lucrative export market. For the most part, Cambodian garment factories follow the “cut-make-trim” model, assembling products using materials, machines and designs that are imported from overseas. Mainland Chinese companies supply the textiles and other materials to producers based in Cambodia, and the bulk of China’s export to Cambodia is fabric and other materials destined for the garment industry.

To illustrate the extent to which this is likely to impact on Chinese investments in Cambodia, we can look again to the Sihanoukville SEZ case. At present the SEZ operators claim to employ over 22,000 workers in approximately 160 factories, aiming to increase this to 100,000 workers across 300 factories by 2020. The vast majority of tenants in the SEZ are private Chinese companies focusing on light-industry manufacturing, including garments, footwear, bags and leather goods. Among the “investment advantages” touted by the operators of the SEZ is Cambodia’s “favorable trade status”. Referring to European Union regulations, the SEZ operator states that “one of the most important conditions” is that there are no restrictions on the sources of materials, meaning that garments produced in Cambodia using fabrics from China can enjoy tariff-free preferential access to the EU market. This will end if the EU withdraws Cambodia’s EBA status.

The withdrawal process could take up to 18 months, and can be stopped, if the EU deems sufficient progress has been made in addressing the human rights concerns it has highlighted. In the meantime, it remains unclear how Beijing is responding, specifically, if it is adhering to the rhetoric of “non-interference” and observing as the situation plays out, or if it is making any behind the scenes interventions.

In April, Cambodian officials claimed they have the full support of China. On the sidelines of the second Belt and Road Forum in April, Prime Minister Hun Sen met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and claimed that the premier promised to support Cambodia should EBA status be withdrawn. Later that month, Hun Sen met politburo member Wang Huning, and Cambodian state media reported that Wang said China had studied the issue and found no serious impacts, and that it will find “different ways” to help Cambodia. China broke its silence on the issue in June, with a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasizing the principle of non-interference and stating that China would support Cambodia “in resisting any intimidation or force from the West”.

Despite these public statements and apparent attempts from Cambodia to play down the impacts of an EBA withdrawal, voices of concern are widespread. Cambodia’s National Bank, the World Bank, the Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia, the European, Nordic and British Chambers of Commerce, and major clothing brands that purchase products from Cambodia, have all warned of the potentially momentous impacts that EBA withdrawal could have on export-focused industries and the people they employ. The simple reality is that Chinese companies that have established production bases in Cambodia benefit hugely from these preferential trade schemes, and without them could face major losses. While China could provide additional loans and development assistance to Cambodia, it is not an alternative destination for Cambodian garment exports, and is unlikely to subsidize the over $650 million annual loss that the World Bank estimates could hit the sector if EBA is withdrawn.

In the midst of the US-China trade war, Cambodia’s strategic value as an overseas production base could become increasingly important to China. Given the massive investment that the Chinese state and state-owned entities have put into infrastructure supporting the development of Cambodia’s export-driven economy, these developments will surely be followed closely in Beijing.

If China is to continue to support the industrialization and expansion of Cambodia’s export economy, in which Chinese private interests are now deeply embedded, it may have difficult decisions to make in the coming years, and a more nuanced approach to the sacred non-interference policy may be in order – with potentially interesting implications for ongoing human rights concerns in Cambodia.

Mark Grimsditch is director of the China Global Program at Inclusive Development International. The program monitors trends in Chinese overseas investment and supports civil society groups and networks to develop the knowledge and tools necessary to increase social and environmental accountability of overseas projects.

The Politics of Vexed Capital: China’s Railway Projects in Southeast Asia

Alvin Camba develops a conceptual model to explain why certain Chinese overseas projects progress while others get stalled

By Alvin Camba

Why do some Chinese large-scale projects progress while others have been unable to do so? By interviewing political elites, Chinese officials, and members of various social movements, my ongoing research is currently examining four comparable cases of Chinese railway projects in Southeast Asia: South Rail in the Philippines (2017-), Sino-Thai high-speed railway (2013-), High-speed rail (HSR) in Indonesia (2016-), and the East Coast Railway in Malaysia (2016-2018). My preliminary research finds that the continuation or progression of China’s major railway projects depend on the coalition that Chinese actors form with host state actors. The success of these coalitions depend on (1) whether or not they hold the power resources to implement the project, which depend on the institutional structures of the state; (2) or how immediately vulnerable to electoral cycles or political turnover they are, which could usher in a new regime that reneges on the previous agreement with China.

To demonstrate the framework, this blog post focuses on the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) case in Malaysia, which was started by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, suspended by the new Prime Minister Mahathir, and recently resumed ahead of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. The case is for critics a classic example of a developing country “pushing back” against China’s debt-driven Belt and Road Initiative. But my analysis will show that it is more of a case where a recipient country tries to leverage the BRI for economically viable and politically strategic projects that are with international credibility and domestic legitimacy.

The ECRL will link the wealthier Malaysian states to the developing eastern regions. Source: Alvin Camba

In the ECRL case, a political elite coalition between Najib Razak and the Chinese firm (China Communications Construction Company, CCCC) was initially formed, which concentrated power resources in the hands of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO). Even though the project only began in 2016, it has made substantial gains in terms of land acquisition, rail track construction, and project coordination with state governments. Due to the centralization of power in the hands of the federal and state governments, the ECRL has made great progress relative to projects that have started earlier, such as Indonesia’s HSR and Thailand’s Sino-Thai Railway. Some officials of the “Alliance of Hope” (Pangkatan Harapan) attempted to derail the project but Najib’s power resources and UMNO’s control of the government limited these contentious activities.

Nonetheless, since the ECRL started seven years into Najib’s term, the project became very vulnerable to electoral turnover. This made Mahathir and the Alliance of Hope concentrate their efforts on winning the national elections, which capitalized on the 1MDB scandal, and the complicity of Chinese firms to corruption.

Numerous Chinese-financed projects were later linked to a massive rent-seeking venture for Najib. For instance, the MPP Malacca-Johor pipeline and Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline (TSGP) were most likely used to illicitly transfer funds into the 1MDB fund by overpricing the project cost, which would have burdened Malaysia’s coffers, constraining medium- to long-term benefits and limiting welfare gains.

When Mahathir won the election, the state’s juridical power and political power resources were transferred to the new government. This led to the cancellation of both pipeline projects. However, the Malaysian government needed to compensate the contractors $2 billion USD or 88 percent of the total worth of both projects for just 15% of project’s completion rate.

The ECRL was more difficult to scrap because of the actual economic need to link the wealthier Malaysian states to the developing eastern regions. Furthermore, the Kuantan Industrial Park, which houses the Chinese firm Alliance Steel’s investment that employs locals and generates a multiplier effect on the state’s local economy, stands to benefit from the ECRL’s construction.  These considerations led to the negotiations to bring down to cost by roughly one-third. As of April 2019, the project is back on track.

Alvin Camba develops a conceptual model to explain why certain China-financed rail projects progress when others get stalled

The fates of rail projects in three other Southeast countries are all different depending on how a coalition between China and host state actors negotiate their way through political dynamics involving multiple obstructing and rent-seeking local elites. In Indonesia, Jokowi Widodo’s Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway (HSR) started early in his term and China offered better project terms in order to win the deal over Japan. Project timing, limited geographical coverage, and Jokowi’s political position enabled the project to progress. In the Philippines, the project started at the beginning of Rodrigo Duterte’s tenure, forming a coalition between the Duterte administration and the Chinese firm. However, regional-local elites lobbied the Duterte government for train stops in their own provinces. For the elites, economic activity and political gain will cluster cities or province who receive the stop. The Duterte government and the Chinese firm mediated these conflicts, promising livelihood projects and electoral support in return. In Thailand, a coalition between the Yingluk Shinawatra and the Chinese state agreed on a train project in 2013. However, Thailand’s internal political dynamics, particularly Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s coup and the emergence of the military regime, effectively deposed Yingluk and delayed all the major projects. The Chinese government was willing to renegotiate with Thailand, but Prayut wanted better term than the ones that Yingluk acquired. Recently, new terms are being renegotiated.

In sum, the progression and delays of these major railway projects depend on the coalitions that the Chinese government and firms form with host state elites. Contrary to perceptions of China “dictating” tough terms, host countries do have some agency to decide which projects to finance, terms to accept, and conditions to execute.

Alvin Camba is a China Initiative Fellow at the Global Development Policy Center and a Ph.D. Candidate at Johns Hopkins University. He works on the political economy of Chinese foreign capital and elite theory. His works can be found at

Lessons from my three years engaging with China’s hydropower giants

A first-person account of how China’s hydropower giants engage with civil society groups when operating overseas

By Stephanie Jensen-Cormier

Flooded temples and homes, Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project in Cambodia, August 2018, International Rivers

Global hydropower is a big industry. It currently supplies around 16% of global electricity and, though capacity installation rates have remained steady since 2008, is seeing a huge rise in investments. In 2017 the amount of money committed to hydropower projects doubled from the previous year. Chinese hydropower companies hold by far the lion’s share of this market, up to 70% according to the People’s Daily.

Increasingly packaging their projects under the “Belt and Road Initiative”, China’s hydropower companies tend to speak of their overseas projects in terms of poverty reduction, improving livelihoods, protecting the environment, and encouraging development. The negative effects of large scale hydro projects have been broadly documented, however. To take just one example, dams have displaced over 80 million people worldwide and are estimated to have negatively affected 472 million people.

With evidence stacking up against their claims to bring green development to communities, it is important to assess and judge just how serious China’s hydropower companies are about their words. One lens through which to judge this is companies’ engagement with civil society, who play an indispensable role in increasing companies’ accountability and warning about negative environmental and social impacts which the company may otherwise ignore.

During my three years working for International Rivers in China I had the opportunity to engage with some of these companies on their overseas projects. I’ve seen companies take steps towards greater openness to engage, understand and learn about the environmental and social concerns surrounding their projects. This has even led to tangible results in some cases. On the whole, however, my experiences showed that there is a long way to go before China’s hydro giants are ready to take that extra leap away from their traditional operating models and towards one which is more transparent, accountable and open to engagement. This blog outlines some of my key observations from interactions with Chinese hydropower companies and thoughts about how such corporate – civil society engagement may progress in the coming years.

From increased budgets to limited engagement

Some companies have tried to improve their domestic and overseas operations by increasing the size of project teams responsible for environmental protection and conservation, increasing budgets to compensate resettled and affected communities and environmental management and biodiversity offsets. These actions can provide an important step in internalizing costs that are otherwise externalized onto local people and the environment. However, in order to avoid such endeavors from ‘green-washing’ harmful projects, companies need to prioritize efforts to meaningfully include communities and NGOs in discussions, especially in the planning and design stages.

The 1,075 MW Nam Theun 2 dam in Laos demonstrates the blind spots of simply throwing resources at the problem. Beginning operation in 2010, the dam was heralded by the World Bank as a way of ‘doing a dam better’, due largely to the amount of money allocated to resettlement (USD 16 million) and conservation (USD1 million annual conservation fund) out of USD 1.45 billion total budget. Nonetheless, reports published from 2010 through to today by the Independent Panel of Experts established by the World Bank and project proponents demonstrate that the project’s intention for genuine benefit-sharing failed and that outcomes had failed to ensure indigenous peoples’ rights, negatively impacted the livelihoods of displaced communities, damaged fisheries, and precipitated the degradation of forests and wildlife (Shoemaker, International Rivers).

What the Nam Theun 2 dam case shows is that there is a pressing need for hydropower companies to engage in frank discussions with civil society organizations and NGOs, often squeezed by local governments for speaking against their priorities,

Since 2009 PowerChina, which owns over 50% of the global market share for hydropower, has made efforts to communicate with International Rivers. The engagement has included dialogue over the Nam Ou hydropower cascade in Laos. Consisting of a seven dam cascade, the Nam Ou cascade is the first time a Chinese company has obtained rights to develop an entire river basin outside of China. Its location on a major tributary of the Mekong is of significant concern, as are limitations in the project consultations with affected communities and its projected impact on a large number of fish and other riverine species.

Over several years, PowerChina Resources and the Nam Ou River Basin Hydropower Co. Ltd (in which PowerChina Resources owns 85%) hosted International Rivers staff in meetings at the Nam Ou Hydropower Project head office in Luang Prabang and in site visits to the Nam Ou cascade. The company provided access to high level and relevant management personnel, documents related to the project and prepared presentations with updates on the project status. Company representatives endeavored to be welcoming, constructive and informative. These were all positive signs, but limitations remained in terms of the information shared, including non-disclosure of key project documents and impact assessments. This constrained the substantive dialogue on the social and environmental performance of the cascade that we were aiming for.

Nonetheless, the company have been open to receiving feedback and have indicated that they would like to have training sessions on some of the aspects in which their project could be improved to ensure better outcomes for the health of the river system and well-being of affected communities.

Nam Ou 7 construction site, Nov 2017, b
Part of the construction site at Nam Ou 7, Lao PDR, November 2017, International Rivers

Mismatched motivations

In 2015 International Rivers published a scorecard report on Chinese overseas hydropower companies. Ranking last out of seven companies, Huaneng Lancang River Hydropower Inc. (Huaneng Lancang), a subsidiary of energy monolith China Huaneng Group, used the moment to reach out to International Rivers, dropping an earlier unwillingness to interact with the organization over the Lower Sesan 2 dam in Cambodia.

In 2015 and 2016, International Rivers participated in a series of meetings with the Huaneng Lancang. Several executives, including the company Chairman, travelled from Kunming to Beijing on short notice in order to attempt to rectify the poor review of their company and project. The Chairman (who has since retired) even participated in exchanges with NGOs during the ‘2015 Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy’ held in Phnom Penh.

The company’s willingness to meet and exchange with NGOs was unprecedented for them and a step towards greater transparency. But parallel to these efforts, the Lower Sesan 2 project continued to face community resistance and was marred by negative attention concerning the project’s extensive environmental and social impacts, involuntary displacement of indigenous peoples, and lack of adequate consultation with affected communities.

Huaneng Lancang were keen to use their unprecedented engagement with International Rivers to urge us to modify the report ranking, which would cast the company and the Lower Sesan 2 project in a better light. We did not revise the report, however, and the company has since declined to meet with International Rivers. From 2017 Huaneng Lancang deprioritized communication and delegated junior employees with responding to us.

From the three year experience of our interactions with Huaneng Lancang it was apparent that there was a significant gulf between the two sides’ motivations for engagement. While International Rivers were keen to use the opportunity to engage the company on issues such as benefit sharing, comprehensive impact assessments and community engagement, Huaneng Lancang appeared to be seeking a quick fix, namely, changing their ranking in the scorecard report.

Since our interactions with the company were downgraded to junior staff, numerous reports, including a statement in 2018 by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, documented the project’s violations of the rights of communities. China Huaneng Group was expelled from the UN Global Compact in September 2018 for “failure to communicate progress.”

Hiding behind contract types

There are two main contract types for hydropower projects. In Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) arrangements, companies assume the liability for environmental and social aspects of the project; they finance, design and build in exchange for operating rights, typically 20-30 years. Engineering Procurement Construction (EPC) contracts have less liabilities. In my interactions and meetings, Chinese companies with EPC contracts tended to deflect the responsibilities for environmental and social impact assessments and compliance with local and international laws to clients – usually the host country government. Under an EPC contract, the company designs, builds and delivers the asset in an operational state. The client (not the company) is responsible for the financing, preliminary studies (including environmental, social and cumulative impact assessments) and legal requirements. Companies building EPC projects therefore have convenient excuses for why they do not ensure that proper due diligence is conducted. When companies with EPC contracts do implement environmental protection measures or provide compensation to resettled communities, no matter how insufficient these are, they claim to be going beyond their contract obligations.

Hiding behind contract types can mean that companies do not strive to develop better policies, mechanisms and practice, related to due diligence, environmental impact mitigation and monitoring or benefit-sharing with local populations.

This creates reputational risks for companies. For example, the complaints about improper contracts, low pay and poor treatment from workers of subcontracted companies at the 183 MW Isimba Hydropower Project in Uganda, expected to come online in this year, has had a reputational impact on the contractor China International Water and Electric and the parent company, China Three Gorges.

Failing to obtain a social license to operate

Chinese entities involved in developing hydropower projects overseas prioritize amicable government-to-government relations, and typically fail to actively demonstrate their social and environmental responsibility and commitments or understanding of benefit sharing.

The World Bank defines benefit sharing as “the systematic efforts made by project proponents to sustainably benefit local communities affected by hydropower investments.” It also contains recognition that affected people must be consulted about plans for compensation. In my experience Chinese hydropower companies have shown very limited understanding of this concept, and that lack of understanding is at the root of companies’ failure to obtain a social license to operate in the eyes of the public.

When companies have outlined their plans for benefit-sharing, these generally include providing one off payments of cash compensation for displaced communities, infrastructural development such as leveling land, building or improving roads and bridges, building schools or local community centers, adding fish to reservoirs or gifting company vehicles after the construction team leaves. Benefit sharing at this level, focusing on short rather than long term outcomes, falls short on a number of fronts.

Firstly, the individuals who comprise the ‘affected people’ are usually defined very narrowly in scope. International practice includes people who have been displaced as well as those who are impacted upstream, downstream or in the areas surrounding the reservoir. For most Chinese companies, however, only displaced people are eligible to receive benefits which have been defined by the company. For example, the Lower Sesan 2 compensation plan lists only six villages, while independent studies have shown that the dam impacted at least 250 villages.

Secondly, initiatives like building or improving roads improves access to the work site often benefiting the company more than local communities. Consulting with local communities in the process of infrastructure development could help ensure the public is better able to benefit from the new infrastructure. Adding non-native fish to reservoirs, which companies frequently do, including at the Lower Sesan 2 reservoir, is likely to diminish the balance of ecosystems and exerts even more pressure on native riverine species.

Lastly, these ‘benefit sharing’ initiatives are generally short term. Companies need to consider longer term monetary and non-monetary benefits like providing free access or preferential electricity rates, payments for environmental or ecosystem services, establishing long term community development funds, creating long-term employment, and ensuring custodianship over wildlife and other natural resources (World Bank).

Planned projects as a test cases

There are opportunities for Chinese companies, banks and the government to show that they are responsive to discussing projects with civil society organizations. One of these opportunities has been in the headlines in recent weeks. The Batang Toru hydropower project is a proposed 510MW dam in Sumatra, Indonesia, which, if constructed, will cut through the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, the world’s most recently discovered and most endangered species of orangutan. Campaigners say its construction will almost certainly lead to the species’ extinction.

The project is packaged under the Belt and Road Initiative, slated to be built by PowerChina Sinohydro and likely to be financed by the Bank of China. In recent months the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) has filed a lawsuit challenging flawed environmental permits and has attempted to communicate with the Bank of China and Sinohydro for almost a year, but have been unable to open the door to meaningful discussions. In March, WALHI garnered support from peers in twelve countries to deliver letters to their local Chinese consulates and Bank of China branches. Despite months of unresponsiveness, the Bank of China publicly acknowledged reception of the letters within one business day.

Projects as destructive as Batang Toru are currently under consideration by PowerChina Sinohydro and other Chinese hydropower companies. Similarly, the Koukoutamba Dam in Guinea, if constructed, would seriously impact Critically Endangered chimpanzees, flooding a protected national park area and resulting in the deaths of up to 1,500 specimens. If projects like these get built, they will not only damage the reputation of the financiers and builders, but also exacerbate public distrust in the intentions of the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative, something which voices in China are increasingly expressing concern about.

Long term impacts

The foremost experts on dams have warned against a lack of consideration or monitoring for the long-term social and environmental impacts of dams. It is essential for companies to take into account the cumulative impacts of their projects as rivers perform tangible and intangible services on which we all ultimately depend. Yet, Chinese hydropower companies generally lack appropriate tracking and monitoring mechanisms to evaluate the cumulative impacts of multiple projects in their areas of activity. They tend to look exclusively at the project site, ignoring the broader repercussions on the environment and people.

If Chinese hydropower companies open to deeper engagement, their powerful interests will likely be challenged and they may have to change the way they conduct business. In particular, they may need to evaluate whether proposed large infrastructure projects are a means to decrease poverty and promote environmental conservation. They may also have to more closely determine whether governments in Belt and Road regions have sufficient capacity to evaluate, monitor and oversee such projects. Chinese hydropower companies would be able to adapt — they usually have broad energy portfolios and have elsewhere proven their ability to build clean energy projects like solar and wind.

China has the potential to be a global and responsible leader in developing clean energy, but it must not shy away from constructive engagement with civil society and communities. In its endeavor to connect the world in a “people-centered” manner, China must ensure that its SOEs build genuine relationships of open and constructive dialogue with local communities, indigenous peoples and NGOs. If Chinese companies and banks decide to ignore global civil society’s requests to engage, communities will inevitably resort to more confrontational actions to have their concerns and voices heard.

Stephanie Jensen-Cormier is an independent consultant based in Costa Rica where she works on themes that interconnect environmental and social justice. She lived and worked in China for eight years; her last position prior to leaving in 2018 was as International Rivers’ China Program Director.

Rising China in the eyes of its closest neighbors

What a collection of ethnographic studies about “neighboring China” can tell us about the Belt and Road

by Tom Baxter

At over 22,000 km, China has the world’s longest land border. Lined up along that border are a total of 14 countries, countless local communities and long histories of interaction and isolation, trade and suspicion. The Art of Neighbouring: Making Relations Across China’s Borders (pdf available for download here) is a selection of essays that look at the diverse experiences of living on China’s border from the perspectives of the communities who live with its presence on a daily basis.

From Laos to Nepal, to Mongolia and Vietnam, the regions along China’s long border are too often seen as peripheral, on both sides — the northern highlands of Laos and Vietnam border China’s mountainous Yunnan province, Nepal neighbors the Tibetan plateau. But as China’s economic, political and social presence and engagement across the Asian continent expands, not least via the official encouragement of China’s “going out” policy and the more recent Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the experiences of these border regions are becoming increasingly important in understanding China’s role across the continent. At the same time, it is the communities on both sides of the border who often feel the most direct impacts of the increased interaction being encouraged by Beijing.

In attempting to understand and assess the impact and the on-the-ground reality of the BRI, this year celebrating its sixth birthday, it is important that we acknowledge those communities’ experiences and look at, in the words of the collection’s editors, Martin Saxer and Juan Zhang, the “smaller scale processes of exchange”, which are undergoing rapid change. Through a series of in depth, mostly ethnographic case studies, The Art of Neighbouring is a step in that direction.

The case studies in the book all date from before 2012. That is, from before the Belt and Road Initiative was announced in October 2013. Nonetheless, they reflect the impacts of a trend of China’s increasing presence outside its own borders which holds true both before and after Xi Jinping’s BRI speech in October 2013. Each chapter of the book focuses on a case study from a total of eight of China’s neighboring countries. Running through those geographically disparate case studies are couple of major themes which deserve highlighting.

art of neighboring

Reimagining histories

In a number of the book’s case studies the rapidly increasing interconnectivity with China is not a new phenomenon, but rather a revival of a historical norm. This is particularly evident in the case of Martin Saxer’s ethnographic study in northern Nepal where the trading relationships across a previously porous border was the basis of existence for borderland communities. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s that the border between China and Nepal became strictly demarcated and regulated. Where trade had once occurred wherever there was a passable valley, it now became limited to just six official border crossings. Before that, highland communities sought their existence as intermediary traders between the arid and harsh Tibetan plateau and the fertile lowlands of Nepal and India. Since the 1970s China’s increasing wealth and the renewed connectivity brought by new roads which link the borderlands to China much more directly and tightly than to Kathmandu revitalized this centuries old norm.

Along with these physically changing realities, local communities have also reimagined their place in the history of China-Nepal relations and understand their current occupations as following in the footsteps of their ancestors as borderland trading communities. “The new roads are primarily conceived of as ways back to what is remembered as prosperous trans-Himalayan exchange,” Saxer writes. In other words, in the eyes of local communities, a rising and more internationally present China is not so much a disruption of the world order, but is facilitating a return to normality after a comparatively brief interlude.

A case study of traders in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan demonstrates a similar historical processes of a border region “under fuzzy sovereign rule” becoming closed borders during the Cold War to re-opening in the last thirty to forty years. Henryk Alff’s study of the traders reveals that they often attempted to rekindle (perceived) historical ethnic allegiances across borders with, for example, Hui Muslims in China. One Dungan trader from Kyrgyzstan states, “some of us had remote kinship ties with places in China where our ancestors originally came from.” In the post-Soviet and rising China period, traders have been able to take advantage of these perceived cross-border common identities to ease deals and partnership. It is another example of regional history re-imagined, which in turn informs how local people comprehend China’s growing presence and interconnectivity on the continent.

A truck preparing to enter into China at Nepal’s border to Tibet in Rasuwagadhi, image by: Nabin Baral

China as threat / China as opportunity

Which leads on to the second major theme in the book’s case studies. Informed by local history and present day circumstances, communities all along China’s border are divided in their perceptions of China as a threat or an opportunity.

In Saxer’s Nepal case study he provides an example of an embracing attitude towards China’s presence. Moreover, it is a welcoming coming from local communities and a bottom-up approach, rather than via the top-down government initiatives involving state owned companies, banks and political MOUs through which we normally make sense of China’s presence abroad.

In 2010 a former member of Parliament and local to the northern border region of Humla pulled together local business people to form a Road Construction Committee which lobbied Kathmandu to provide funding to build a road through the lesser used Limi valley to China. They were successful and, after securing funding from Kathmandu, also managed to reach agreement with China to temporarily open the border through the valley for sales of diesel for the construction equipment. By the end of the year the first section of the road was complete, and a Chinese delegation even came to attend the inauguration ceremony.

In another example, a study conducted between 2009 and 2012 of Myanmar Muslim communities residing in Ruili in China’s Yunnan province by Renaud Egreteau reveals that to these communities China is seen as a refuge and a sanctuary compared to the situation they face at home. One of his Ruili-dwelling Myanmar interviewees even says “it’s paradise here!”

In contrast, the histories of Cold War suspicion, tension and conflict along China’s Russian and Vietnamese borders do not wash away overnight. Two case studies of these borderlands show that a perception of China as a threat persists through to this day. A Vietnamese border trader interviewed by Juan Zhang in her study of the Lao Cai – Hekou border crossing says, “even now the Chinese are not much better than before…One can never be too careful.”

Within countries there are of course also divided perspectives on China as threat or opportunity. These as yet unsettled perspectives played out in a number of high profile elections in 2018 in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. 2019 is likely to see more of this tension as more politicians, banks, constituents and other interest groups push back on some of the excesses of Chinese projects and work towards establishing national level strategies on how to interact (or how not to interact) with China and the Belt and Road. Elections in India and, in particular, Indonesia this year could display snapshots of this trend.

What can we learn?

The voices and the world views of communities experiencing and engaging in China’s increasing global presence are an important part of the Belt and Road “story” and the rapidly changing on-the-ground reality across Asia. For one, they represent world views that are often overlooked in mainstream coverage of China’s influence abroad and the Belt and Road. While media often seek comment from local communities on their attitudes toward a specific project, it is rare to hear their take on the larger scale shifting reality or on such big questions as whether China is primarily conceived of as a threat or as an opportunity. As narratives on BRI become more and more polarized between the Beijing story and the Washington story or the Brussels story, it is important not to forget the voices of those who are far more directly impacted by the, in some places, transformational, change BRI is bringing.

But these local community voices are not just “color” for media stories. They are also agents in and of themselves. Saxer’s fascinating case study of a local community proactively campaigning for infrastructure connectivity with China is a case in point. The agency of these local communities is also being played out at very local levels, in national elections and in the establishing of recipient country policies and strategies toward the Belt and Road. In a recent article on Euromoney, Djiboutian minister of finance, Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, stated “we have problems with the current Belt and Road narrative”. His voice may represent that of a recipient country political elite, rather than the grassroots voices explored in The Art of Neighbouring, but it points to the same problem — the current narrative of the Belt and Road too often overlooks the diversity of agency playing out in its growth and development.

The Art of Neighbouring points a way towards a deeper and more complex understanding of China’s growing presence and engagement on the Asian continent and of the dynamics playing out along the Belt and Road. For these reasons it is useful for all of us in the emerging “Belt and Road watcher” community. Even better will be more recent ethnographic studies of local communities’ perspectives on China since the announcement of the Belt and Road in 2013. This watcher, for one, is waiting keenly for that.

Supply and demand: understanding Chinese involvement in coal projects overseas

China is shifting away from coal domestically but building many coal power plants overseas, why?

China’s involvement in building coal power projects in other countries has been the subject of much criticism. The increasing urgency to address climate change, as highlighted by the recent special report published by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), casts such involvement under serious scrutiny. The IPCC report bluntly states that in order to keep global temperature rises close to the 1.5 degree threshold that scientists deem relatively safe, countries should basically cease using coal as energy for electricity by 2040. Global temperatures are already 1 degree higher than pre-industrialization levels, leaving humanity with very little remaining “carbon budget” to spend if it is serious about keeping climate change under control. As one of the most carbon intensive way to generate electricity, coal-fired power plants (CFPP) understandably rank high in the phase-out list.

To a large extent, Chinese actions in this area would determine the fate of the “black gold” and the global fight against climate change, due to the size of its economy which still relies primarily on coal for electricity. In comparison, coal only accounts for 17.8% of the US’s primary energy source. Alarmingly, as China shifts away from coal domestically, for air quality and economic structure considerations, it appears to be building coal power projects elsewhere in the world that will likely negate part of the decarbonization happening inside China while exporting pollution.

Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the Council for Foreign Relations, encapsulates the criticism in her 2017 article on Politico, calling out China’s overseas CFPP involvement as “ugly” and “not in keeping with the spirit of (the Paris Climate) Agreement.”

At a recent workshop that I attended in Jakarta, co-organized by the Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute and Indonesian think thank IESR, a local CNN correspondent asked the panelists the same question: Does China’s building of CFPPs in Indonesia constitute a “double standard”?

This is a question that is likely going to be asked more in the future, as the urgency of climate change becomes ever more salient and China’s overseas involvement continues to deepen. The Jakarta workshop, which convened stakeholders from both Indonesia and China, provided an opportunity to do just that, taking a closer look at an issue ripe with contradictions. Discussions at the workshop suggest that there are at least three lenses through which the issue can be viewed: recipient country agency, multi-stakeholder playing field, and Chinese industrial policy.

An IESR researcher presenting research findings at the workshop

The role (& responsibility) of recipient countries

Responding to the question from the CNN journalist, Professor Yuan Jiahai from the North China University of Electric Power, who was present at the event, argued that it was largely an outcome of recipient country demand and market competition: Indonesia’s power sector is in need of CFPPs and Chinese companies are coming in to capture the market.

According to the Indonesian officials, electrification remains a priority of Indonesia, the 4th most populous country in the world, of over 18,000 islands, where access to safe and affordable electricity in many areas is still all but unavailable. At the same time, on the supply side, the government is at pains to diversify its energy sources, ever since Indonesia became a net oil importer for the first time in 2004. Within a short span of 8 years (from 2009 to 2016), electricity generation from oil fell from 25% in the general mix to below 7%. while coal rose from 39% to 55%. These changes have been led by twosuccesstive administrations (President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Joko Widodo) who spearheaded the so called “Crash Programs” to accelerate installation of power capacities to ease the country’s chronic electricity crunch.

However, it has not been all smooth sailing. President Yudhoyono’s first Crash Program was known for its poor execution. Announced in 2004, it aimed to add 10,000MW of new capacity by 2009. Instead completion was severely delayed until 2014, and the resulting power plants that were built were of such low quality that they could not perform at their stated capacity.

President Joko Widodo’s new program, created in 2014, aims to add another 35,000MW to the grid by 2019, a goal that many consider unrealistic.

And it is here that China’s involvement dovetails, as Chinese companies pocketed the majority of projects under President Yudhoyono’s initial program. As opposed to outright ownership of the projects, the Chinese companies were mainly involved in design and construction through EPC contracts (Engineering, Procurement and Construct), which meant that they did not operate, maintain, nor own the power plants that they built. Apart from their engineering and construction prowess, favourable financing support for Chinese company involvement may have also played a key role for their winning of this job.

As a result of these developments in Indonesia’s Crash Program, Chinese companies, and by extension, China, came to occupy a primary role in Indonesia’s energy system. Indonesian media was rife with open speculation that favoritism toward China was part of why so many projects were granted to Chinese companies, pointing to the fact that project tender process had deadline submission requirements only China’s companies could meet. The speculations weren’t entirely groundless. Recently, Indonesia’s national power company (PLN) is embroiled in corruption scandals related to its coal power project.

More guests at the dinner party

It is worth noting, however, that China has not been the only outside player eyeing the Indonesian coal power cake. Japan is a key player and has been exerting its influence.

At the workshop that I attended, the below chart kept appearing in presentations from Indonesia officials. It illustrated Japan’s roadmap to assist Indonesia in building its “clean coal” power fleet through to 2025. Created by the Japan International Development Agency (JICA) as part of its development assistance to Indonesia, JICA stated that “the introduction of Japan’s CCT(Clean Coal Technology), which represents the highly efficient technology for coal-fired power plants, will help curb demand for coal and greenhouse gas emissions by making it possible to increase the output of power generation without increasing the use of the resource.” In the planning for the study, JICA also built in a step where the roadmap could be “incorporated into Indonesia’s national power source plan”.

CCT Roadmap
Roadmap of clean coal fired power plant deployment in Indonesia, created by JICA

Beyond the controversy of an external country’s involvement in domestic energy developments, Japan’s pushing of “clean coal” has raised the ire of many who believe it be a false solution to climate change. Ironically, JICA created the roadmap in close coordination with Japan’s Climate Change Program Loan to Indonesia, announced in 2008 as Japan’s first climate change-related Official Development Aid (ODA) loan to assist Indonesia in its effort to reduce emissions, strengthen adaptation to climate change and respond to cross-sectoral issues. This practice of marrying the promotion of Japanese coal technology and its climate finance has been controversial and subject to much criticism internationally.

But Japanese officials are unabashed when confronted with the question. As Japanese media reported, promoting Japan’s high efficiency coal power technology as a climate change solution is part of Japanese government’s efforts to “assist Japanese businesses against Chinese rivals for coveted overseas power plant contracts.”

To some extent, Japan’s efforts in Indonesia have paid off nicely. Of the  8 high-efficiency coal power plants  that are under construction,at least 3 projects, including the 2 largest (Jawa Tengah- Central Jawa and Jawa-4 – Central Jawa), are being financed by Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) or built by Japanese companies such as J-Power and Itochu. And despite the controversy over the Jawa Tengah project for its land acquisition issues and environmental problems, Japan’s support for it continues, with one Japanese official telling the Nikkei Asian Review, that they wanted to make the Central Java project a showcase that will open the door to more projects.” Recent signs seem to suggest that there might be a rethinking of overseas coal financing from Japanese financial institutions.

Chinese industrial policy

Japan’s rather high-profile and coordinated activities in Indonesia to promote its coal interest provides a point of reference for Chinese efforts in the same arena.

If there is one component of the nebulous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that is relatively well defined, it is its function as an extension of Chinese industrial policy. The need for many Chinese industrial sectors to find new markets outside their home country is a powerful driver for China’s “Going Out” strategy which predates the BRI for more than a decade.

In the specific area of coal power, China, as its neighbor Japan, is keen to see its companies winning lucrative contracts overseas, a need accentuated by a slowing domestic market. According to Prof. Yuan Jiahai, China’s coal power sector is facing a severe overcapacity problem: “failure in power planning” (i.e. not foreseeing slowing electricity demand growth) makes many existing Chinese coal power plants badly under-utilized, spending a good part of the year idling. The situation prompted the Chinese government to apply the brake on new coal power plants, suspending new builds in 15 provinces.

Prof. Yuan Jiahai’s presentation highlights the problem of overcapacity with China’s coal power sector by showing decreasing annual utilization hours of existing power plants

But the Chinese companies that over the years have excelled in building CFPPs need jobs. And the unique bond between Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the state machinery (diplomatic, finance and industrial) makes China particularly well disposed to make concerted efforts to advance the interest of its industries. A 2015 State Council directive on “international industrial capacity sharing” lays out a blueprint for how the government would assist competitive Chinese industries to expand globally. Within its toolbox are instruments such as Chinese policy banks (China Development Bank and the China EXIM Bank) that tie their concessional loans with business deals for Chinese companies; and high-level bilateral government-to-government dialogues that secure “full package” deals for Chinese corporations. Premium Li Keqiang’s “industrial diplomacy” with Kazakhstan is celebrated as the origin of this model.

Power plant construction and operation is listed in the directive as one of the priorities for such state support, as it is a sector through which not just Chinese equipment, but also Chinese services and standards, can be exported. And the model plays out in Indonesia’s power market. Shenhua, one of China’s largest coal industry conglomerates, won the contract to build and run the Java-7 coal-fired power plant in Banten, another high efficiency CFPP listed in the CCT roadmap. The Shenhua-led Chinese consortium managed to beat 36 other competitors in the bid, and attributed the success to its premium clean coal technology and “low-cost, tailor-made financing” based on its strategic partner relation with China Development Bank.

This may give the impression of a formidable, highly efficient industry-policy complex geared up to take over any country’s power market. But in reality, Chinese efforts in promoting the export of its industrial capacities are far from seamlessly coordinated. Government red tapes and lack of service/support are among the many complaints Chinese entrepreneurs make. And in many emerging markets Chinese companies are still required to follow standards set by “Europeans, Japanese or South Koreans.” Chinese actors are barely catching up with experienced players in the arena (such as Japan) that have mastered the art of merging foreign aid, industrial policy and overseas investment into a strategically aligned whole. By and large, Chinese companies still predominantly compete for EPC deals, which is considered low-end and low-value in the global value chain.

GEI-China coal type
Majority of Chinese involvement in overseas coal power projects is through EPC contracts. Source: GEI

Shifting China’s overseas coal involvement

For anyone with an eye to engage and influence China’s overseas energy projects along the Belt and Road, the above should serve as a reminder of the intertwined forces that are collectively shaping the energy landscapes in those developing countries.

To shift the direction of such projects would require pulling multiple strings at the same time: without empowered and enabled host countries that are capable of envisioning their own energy future differently, investing countries alone would find it hard pressed to resist lucrative power deals that are being actively marketed; without a globally coordinated and aligned approach to public financing of fossil fuel projects, one country’s high-minded rejection of a project might simply become another country’s business opportunity; and without a conversation that could engage China’s industrial policy makers, the domestic economic agenda would continue producing strong momentums for Chinese companies to seek CFPP projects overseas, despite warnings from climate scientists.