Newsletter 4/August 2021

China, Geopolitics, and the Global South

CONTENTS: Blog post: Risks of labour unrest // News: „Greening“ Belt & Road / Beijings human rights offensive // Readings: Overseas investments and human rights / Public perceptions of BRI and sustainability.                                            

Blog Posts

The Risks of Worker’s Unrest

“Who built the seven-gated Thebes?” asks Bertold Brecht’s ‘reading worker’, “in the books are the names of kings.” In the case of the Silk Roads, Chinese workers are at least mentioned, but in most cases with the comment that they were displacing local workers. Labour conditions and trade union rights, on the other hand, feature hardly at all in the debates on Chinese projects and companies. But here there are risks that could jeopardise the whole BRI venture. More


A Deep Reach into the Pot of Green Paint

The “Green Development Guidelines for Overseas Investment and Cooperation”, announced by the Chinese government at the beginning of July 2021 require state-owned Chinese corporations and banks to ‘go green’. Investments in industries, infrastructure, the energy sector and economic zones are to be “greened” by complying with local and, where appropriate, international standards such as Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). Additionally, public relations campaigns shall counter critical reports, for example by environmental and development organisations, with positive cases (“Tell China’s Story Well”). Up to now, this attempt to cushion ecological and social risks for Chinese investments, and to improve the image of government and corporations, is “soft law”, i.e. rather toothless instructions. Therefore, it remains to be shown how it will be implemented or whether it will even contribute to sustainable development. Moreover, it is no substitute for the critical monitoring of Chinese investments by environmental and development organisations.

See: What China’s new guidelines on ‚green development’ mean for the Belt and Road. China Dialogue, August 18, 2021.

Human rights: Beijing considers attack the best defence

At the 47th session of the UN Human Rights Council in the summer of 2021, Beijing experimented “with a full-throated denunciation of human rights violations in other countries”, writes Shannon Tiezzi in the August issue of The Diplomat. China, a member of the UN organisation since its founding in 2006, has recently come under heavy attack for its whitewashing report on the human rights situation in its own country.

Until now, the government’s tactics have been mainly to defensively refer to “double standards” and “double-speak” by Western countries and the notion of “human rights governance in a balanced way” by emphasising social rights in particular. This time, for example, Australia, with which Beijing is engaged in a politically motivated trade dispute, has been aggressively attacked for “numerous human rights violations”: the criticism of the repression of and discrimination against Aborigines and the detention camps for refugees are still easily recognisable as retaliation against the condemnation of Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang. However, reference was also made to the hate crimes against people of Asian origin. The decrying of systemic racism and structural discrimination by ” relevant Western countries” against both Africans and African descendants and Asians in Australia and elsewhere seems to be a particular focus of the offensive.


Chinese Foreign Investment and Human Rights

Increasingly, Chinese investments abroad are coming under critical scrutiny by human rights organisations, civil society or trade union groups – similar to their counterparts from Western capitalist countries. However, the findings of a study by the international human rights organisation Business & Human Rights Resource Centre on their manifold social, ecological and human rights blunders are hardly surprising to the informed observer: The study reviewed almost 700 allegations against Chinese companies abroad between 2003 and 2020 – in view of the much larger number of companies, probably only a fraction of violations of land and labour rights, of health and environmental hazards, and of the destruction of livelihoods. It is also hardly surprising that such violations are particularly high in countries with weak political and legal institutions and in the mining and construction industries – after all, this has been shown many times in a similar way for Western capitalist companies. It is therefore premature to point the finger at the Chinese competitors.

The willingness to be transparent and accountable, on the other hand, is much lower than among Western peers, although it is not particularly pronounced there either. Likewise, guidelines and rules to improve responsible corporate governance are not effective enough. Obviously, there is still a lot of room for improvement before Chinese companies reach international standards. Therefore, the study recommends on the one hand to further strengthen the ‘regulatory environment’ and on the other hand to expand the participation of all groups concerned.

However, experience to date suggests that such steps will be difficult for government agencies and companies to take, especially in areas that would be necessary for an effective improvement of the actual situation on the ground, such as transparency, consultation and genuine participation. Existing mechanisms such as Free Prior Informed Consent by affected populations, already undermined in many cases and often degenerating into a farce, would, for example, be detrimental to the reputation of Chinese companies for speedy project implementation and thwart a major competitive advantage. And of course, the impression created by the report that everything would be fine if they joined international standards also glosses over the still universally poor social and ecological balance sheet of most corporations – from both East and West.

„Going out“ responsibly. The Human Rights Impact of China’s Global Investments. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, August 2021.

Public perceptions of BRI and sustainability

Like the paper “The Impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on Conflict States” presented in the July 2021 newsletter, this study looks at fragile countries with conflicts such as Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Uganda. Despite some successes and positive impacts of projects, there is doubt among large sections of the population about the ‘win-win’ narrative that BRI would benefit everyone equally, while instead mainly the political and economic elites are profiting. This could contribute to exacerbating political tensions and instability in the countries – and thus have a negative impact on investors and further fuel an already widespread resentment over Chinese influence, such as in Myanmar. This, according to the study, would jeopardise the sustainability of BRI.

Similar to the “‘Going out’ responsibly” study reviewed above, one of the key recommendations to government institutions and companies is to strengthen transparency and accountability as well as dialogue, participation and conflict and gender sensitivity. This would achieve “sustainable and mutually beneficial, ‘win-win’ partnerships for each country and its population, as well as for the Chinese companies and other foreign businesses operating there”. Working in partnership with civil society “would enable companies to manage potential risks better, ensure relations with host governments and local communities remain positive, and improve China’s and Chinese companies’ reputation, while protecting their ‘social licence to operate’.”

The value of both studies lies less in such recommendations that appeal to the self-interest of companies, than in gathering and systematising more information about the situation ‘on the ground’ and from that deriving key strategies and demands for civil society groups, national and international social and political movements.

Public perceptions of the Belt and Road Initiative. Guiding ‚win-wins’ for people, business and policy makers. By Robert Swaine, Bernardo Mariani and Ilya Jones. Saferworld, August 2021.

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