Global China Pulse

Civil Society’s Multifaceted Response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Written by Shawn Shieh on .

Three years before the official christening of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, a Chinese-financed copper mine in Myanmar provided a cautionary tale of the risks Chinese companies face in their overseas investments and the role civil society can play in pushing back (Yu 2021a).[1] The Chinese company in question was Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited (Wanbao), a subsidiary of China North Industries Corporation (Norinco), a large state-owned conglomerate mainly engaged in the defence industry. In 2010, Wanbao signed a contract to invest US$997 million in the Letpadaung Copper Mine, receiving the rights to operate the mine for 60 years and becoming a 49 per cent shareholder in the mine with Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEHL), a conglomerate owned by the Myanmar military, as the majority shareholder (Chan and Pun 2021).[2]

In what is often standard procedure for Chinese investors, Wanbao relied on government authorities to smooth the way for its takeover of the project. At the time, Myanmar was under military rule and civil society had limited influence, while China was Myanmar’s leading international investor. In this political environment, Wanbao had little incentive to consult with villagers. This situation changed when village heads began confiscating land for the mine, providing little compensation to villagers in the process. In response, villagers began to complain and protest. They became more emboldened with the dissolution of the military regime and the transition to a quasi-civilian government in March 2011 and the election of Aung San Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy members to the still military-dominated parliament. By late 2012, thousands of villagers were participating in protests and, together with activists, community leaders, students, and even Buddhist monks, they occupied the project site. The response by Wanbao and the Chinese Embassy was clumsy and defensive. Wanbao blamed the protests on outside activists and the Chinese Embassy told journalists the mine was intended to benefit Myanmar’s development (Chan and Pun 2021: 11).

In December 2012, the new military-backed civilian government decided to halt the project and, with the military’s approval, set up a parliamentary commission headed by Aung Sang Suu Kyi to lead a review. The commission’s findings and recommendations led Wanbao to implement some corrective measures starting in 2013. In addition to a revised profit-sharing agreement, these included agreeing to provide villagers with job opportunities, supporting vocational and small business training, pledging 2 per cent of the mine’s profits to corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, setting up a community social development team to consult with villagers, and commissioning a consulting company to carry out another environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) (Cai et al. 2017; Chan and Pun 2021). According to Chinese researchers who conducted interviews with the villagers several years later, a significant gap still remained between Wanbao’s promises and the demands of the villagers, many of whom were not receptive to other solutions and simply wanted the project to stop (Personal communication with author, March 2021).

Recurring Themes from the Letpadaung Case

The Letpadaung Copper Mine is not an isolated case and is illustrative of the problems Chinese companies have faced elsewhere by failing to consult with local communities and civil society over land resettlement and compensation, ESIAs, and other related issues. Cai and Zhou (2018), who conducted interviews with 12 Chinese companies with large-scale investment projects in Myanmar, found only three were operating according to plan. Three other projects—the Myanmar–China Oil and Gas Pipelines (Yu 2021b), the Tagaung Taung nickel mine project, and the Letpadaung Copper Mine—had come under pressure from local stakeholders, while the Myitsone hydropower project was suspended due to domestic opposition (Yu 2021c). The Letpadaung case, however, is particularly valuable in providing a high-profile and well-documented example that foreshadows several themes related to Chinese overseas investment that reappear in other cases (Cai et al. 2017; Cai and Zhou 2018).

One such theme is Chinese companies partnering with local companies with ties to corrupt or autocratic governments with little transparency or accountability. In the Letpadaung case, Wanbao partnered with a very powerful company owned by the Myanmar military. Chinese companies may see these partnerships as providing investment security and political protection from legal and social risks, but in engaging in such collaborations, they tend to rely on host country partners to smooth the way and as a result take little responsibility for their own actions. They also reinforce public perceptions of collusion and rent-seeking between host-country elites and Chinese companies—a theme that aligns with findings from a study of Chinese investment in three conflict-affected BRI partner countries: Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, and Uganda (Swaine et al. 2021: iii).

A second, and related, theme is that Chinese companies often find themselves operating in countries where the political situation is unstable, and they are frequently unable to adapt to rapid change. Wanbao entered Myanmar when the military government was in power and the voice of civil society was much more restricted. The company was content to operate within this status quo, making few gestures to communities and allowing local elites to deal with complicated land compensation and relocation issues. When the situation changed in the following year, Wanbao was slow to respond to escalating protests and took corrective actions only after recommendations made by the parliamentary commission.

A third theme is the way the Chinese Government and company representatives took a top-down, defensive, and even hostile approach to dealing with civil society organisations (CSOs) and communities. When protests gathered steam in the autumn of 2012, Wanbao and other Chinese companies in Myanmar sought to brand the protests as illegitimate, accusing outside activists of manipulating villagers. The Chinese Embassy also made a tone-deaf effort to defend the Chinese investment in the mine as socially responsible by saying it was intended to help the country’s industrialisation, adding that China would not back a project that did not support local people (Chan and Pun 2021: 12).

A final motif is the preference of Chinese companies to promote the economic benefits of their projects, emphasising how they support skills-building and job creation and expand market opportunities for village entrepreneurs, while often failing to deal with more difficult issues such as relocation and compensation demands, and creating long-term community consultation and grievance mechanisms.

Artisanal mines near Letpadaung Mountain (2013). Photo: Jacksontpb.
Artisanal mines near Letpadaung Mountain. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC).

The Diversity of Civil Society Responses

In a recent report, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) provided an account of the wide range of human rights violations linked to Chinese overseas investments it has documented. Of the 679 allegations BRHHC documented between 2013 and 2020, 31 per cent involved inadequate disclosure of environmental impact assessments (EIAs), 29 per cent involved land rights violations, 28 per cent loss of livelihoods, 19 per cent labour issues, and 18 per cent pollution and health (BHRRC 2021: 17–19; 2022). Community protests, like those in the Wanbao case, may be the most common image many people have when they think about civil society pushback against such violations. The reality is that responses have taken a wide range of pathways and strategies. One way to categorise these diverse responses is to group them into actions at the local, national, and international levels.

At the international level, some CSOs and communities have used international treaties and norms such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and grievance mechanisms associated with international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Finance Corporation (IFC) to hold Chinese companies accountable. Communities in Cambodia sought to use international human rights mechanisms to hold the Chinese sugar company Hengfu and its subsidiaries accountable for lost land and livelihood opportunities (Mackenzie et al. 2022). UN officials have written to the Chinese Government on the communities’ behalf and are awaiting a response (BHRRC 2021: 27). Similarly, in the past few years, international and local CSOs in Indonesia have worked together on an international media campaign and to file a complaint through the IFC’s accountability mechanism, the Compliance Advisory Ombudsman, about the dangers posed to nearby villages of a mine whose majority owner is a Chinese SOE and whose parent company received loans from a Chinese bank that was a client of the IFC (Inclusive Development International 2021a; Learning Spaces 2021a). In another instance, in April 2020, 260 civil society groups from across the world issued a joint letter calling on the Chinese Government to ensure that Covid-19–related financial relief for struggling BRI projects was not used to bail out projects mired in social, environmental, and financial risks (Inclusive Development International 2020).

At the local and national levels, CSOs, lawyers, and trade unions across the Global South have used environmental and labour laws to file complaints and lawsuits against Chinese investment projects, pushing Chinese companies to improve wages and working conditions, as well as environmental compliance. In the field of labour rights, for instance, mine worker unions in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province have fought to have Chinese-owned mines recognise and collectively bargain with them as required by Zambian labour laws (Learning Spaces 2021a). In 2020, the Chinese-invested Lamu coal plant project in Kenya had its environmental licence revoked following petitions by local communities and a complaint to the National Environment Tribunal over the project’s defective ESIA and insufficient public participation (BHRRC 2021: 15). The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) pulled its financing from the project soon after the tribunal revoked the project’s environmental licence (Kinney 2022). In 2021, soon after reports of a drastic decline in worker safety at Chinese-operated cobalt mines in Democratic Republic of Congo, a local worker injured at one of the mines was awarded damages by that country’s High Court (RAID 2021; Searcey et al. 2021).

These efforts often rest on the difficult, often unrecognised work done at the grassroots level by affected communities, workers, and CSOs in documenting project impacts, communicating with local regulators and policymakers, and carrying out protests, strikes, and campaigns seeking to raise concerns with Chinese companies and decision-makers. The Lamu case was the result of a coordinated campaign involving local communities and local and international CSOs (UNEP 2019). A strong local network of community, environmental, and social groups developed and linked up with global legal experts, environmental specialists, and campaigners, to build a persuasive message. In the US territory of Saipan, Chinese construction workers building casinos and hotels on the island took to the streets in 2017 to draw attention to poor working conditions and unpaid wages. Their efforts eventually led the Chinese companies for which they worked to negotiate settlements with the US Department of Labor in 2018–19 to pay nearly US$14 million in owed wages to 2,400 Chinese workers. In 2021, a US federal court awarded another US$5.4 million in compensation to the workers (Halegua 2020a, 2020b; Learning Spaces 2021c). In Ecuador, indigenous communities, with the help of anti-mining and environmental activists, organised protests in 2018–19 against the Rio Blanco mine jointly owned and operated by Chinese and Hong Kong companies for not engaging in consultation with the communities as required by the country’s constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Latinoamérica Sustentable 2020). The judge, citing a past precedent, ruled in favour of the communities and ordered a temporary halt to mining activities (Hui 2019). In some cases, unaddressed community concerns have led to violence, such as in Kyrgyzstan, where locals attacked and burned down a Chinese-financed gold-processing factory in 2018 due to concerns about environmental impacts such as water contamination, mercury pollution, and findings that the company did not have the necessary construction permits and ESIA. According to the Oxus Society’s protest tracker, covering protests between January 2018 and December 2020, there were 42 rallies and protests in Kyrgyzstan that were in some way related to Chinese policy or investments (Swaine et al. 2021: 9).

The above examples have the following in common: they involve local and/or international civil society working outside China to call for redress for the human rights and environmental impacts of projects connected to Chinese companies operating overseas. There is another subset of civil society responses, however, that involves global civil society working in collaboration with Chinese stakeholders.

Insider versus Outsider Advocacy

Another way to think about civil society responses to Chinese overseas investment is to group them into ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’ advocacy approaches (Learning Spaces 2021b). The insider–outsider framework borrows from the literature on lobbying (Kernell et al. 2017: Ch.13). Insider lobbying involves seeking direct, personal access to policymakers to influence policy outcomes, whereas outsider lobbying seeks to influence policy through grassroots campaigns that change public attitudes and mobilise the public. Similarly, insider advocacy in the context of Chinese overseas investment involves gaining access to Chinese decision-makers to raise their awareness about international environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards, and build their capacity to incorporate those standards into policies and guidelines to improve outcomes. Outsider advocacy involves mobilising local and international groups to raise public awareness, raise concerns to Chinese decision-makers, and in the process apply pressure to encourage them to address ESG impacts. Viewed from this perspective, examples of insider advocacy with Chinese stakeholders are often overlooked. While the civil society responses cited earlier largely fall in the ‘outsider’ advocacy category, there are several CSOs that have chosen to explore opportunities to collaborate with Chinese stakeholders on these issues. Some of these are international CSOs, while others are Chinese CSOs and consulting companies.

These CSOs see the problem as stemming not simply from a lack of willingness on the part of Chinese stakeholders, but also from a lack of capacity. As a researcher formerly with Syntao, a Chinese CSR consulting company, told the author in November 2020, Chinese companies often face challenges dealing with affected communities and CSOs but lack the experience, knowhow, or resources to effectively communicate with those communities and address their concerns. In 2018, Syntao partnered with the Asia Foundation and the China International Contractors Association, a large industry group whose members include most of the major SOEs, to develop a community engagement handbook and used it to carry out three training sessions in China for more than 100 high-level SOE managers and frontline personnel (Syntao 2021). Syntao intended to carry out more training in overseas project sites in Southeast Asia but had to cancel those plans due to the Covid-19 pandemic (Personal communication with Syntao and Asia Foundation staff overseeing the development of the handbook, November 2020). Similarly, the international NGO Global Witness has partnered with another Chinese industry group, the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals, and Chemicals Importers & Exporters, to develop guidelines on socially responsible mining and human rights due-diligence guidelines for its members (Learning Spaces 2021b).

Insider advocacy is an important channel for providing awareness-raising and skill-building for Chinese stakeholders who generally have very little experience dealing with communities and carrying out social and environmental due diligence and are wary of collaborating with civil society. The cases of Global Witness and Syntao indicate there is willingness among some Chinese stakeholders to work with CSOs they trust, particularly Chinese ones and those with a formal presence in China. Insider advocacy in China, however, has become more difficult in recent years given the rapidly shrinking civil society space there. Working to change the mindset and behaviour of stakeholders in China’s top-down, highly bureaucratic system is also a slow process. Chinese stakeholders may issue improved ESG policies and guidelines, but so far have been unlikely to invest more staff and resources to carry out better community consultation or address immediate grievances in projects on the ground.

Given the limitations of insider advocacy, outsider advocacy plays an important role in holding Chinese (and host-country) stakeholders accountable and pressuring them to act more quickly to address grievances, and it is often the only channel available to groups that lack access to Chinese decision-makers. Ideally, insider and outsider advocacy approaches would be complementary, each working through different channels to hold government and corporate stakeholders accountable. However, this would require the insider and outsider groups to share information with one another and collaborate closely on strategy—something that has not happened much to date, even though it is worth noting that some international CSOs such as Global Witness do engage in both types of advocacy.

Chinese Stakeholders Are Responding … Slowly

Since 2013, when President Xi Jinping first announced the BRI, there has been increased focus on Chinese overseas investment and finance. In many developing countries, Chinese capital has the potential to make a significant contribution to their infrastructure needs. The critical question is whether it will contribute to sustainable, inclusive development that will benefit not only government and corporate elites but also communities and more vulnerable groups that often have little voice or influence in these investment decisions. For that to happen, host-country governments and Chinese state and corporate actors need to make a much greater commitment to social and environmental standards in principle and hold themselves accountable to those standards in practice.

The demonstrated growing commitment of Chinese stakeholders to social and environmental responsibility over the past few years suggests that pushback by communities and civil society has had an impact. Government guidelines, policies, and regulations, as well as public statements from Chinese stakeholders, have increasingly mentioned the need for companies to ensure environmental protection, respect the laws and cultures of host countries, and follow international best practices for sustainability. Signalling this shift, a few years after the crackdown on the Letpadaung Copper Mine protests in 2012—and perhaps cognisant of the negative reaction received on that occasion—Chinese officials changed tone. When clashes occurred again in 2014, after Myanmar police fired on protesters, killing one and injuring at least 20 others, China’s foreign affairs spokesperson stated: ‘We express concern and regret at the reports of casualties. We call for the relevant parties to appropriately deal with those victims’ cases’ (Reuters 2014).

The most high-profile commitment came from President Xi in a speech at the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April 2019, when he spoke of the need for a clean and green, high-quality BRI:

We have agreed to act on the principles of high-standard, people-centred and sustainable development, align our cooperation with universally accepted international rules and standards, follow the philosophy of people-centred development, and pursue coordinated progress in economic, social and environmental dimensions. (Belt and Road Forum 2019)

The language of ‘high-standard’ overseas infrastructure development is now present in all major official speeches.

Soon after Xi’s speech, on 26 June 2019, Kenya’s National Environment Tribunal announced it was cancelling the licence issued for the construction of the Lamu Coal Power Plant, and the Chinese state-owned ICBC announced it was withdrawing from the project (Kinney 2022). Two days later, the Chinese Embassy opened its doors to the Save Lamu civil society coalition and China’s Ambassador to Kenya, Wu Peng, reassured the CSOs that ‘whether a coal power plant is built or not should always be and will in the future be the decision only people in Kenya can make’ (BHRRC 2021: 15).

In January 2021, the Chinese Government released a White Paper on international development cooperation that announced China’s intention to significantly step up its development cooperation with the Global South and listed the BRI as a major platform for doing so (SCIO 2021). The White Paper calls for the establishment of ‘a new model of international relations based on mutual respect, equity, justice and win-win cooperation, and build[ing] an open, inclusive, clean and beautiful world’. It devotes several sections to supporting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as poverty reduction, protection of vulnerable groups, food security, health care, education, gender equality, and environmental protection.

More recently, in July 2021 and January 2022, China’s Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Environment and Ecology released a set of voluntary ‘Working Guidelines for Green Development in Overseas Investment and Cooperation’ and ‘Guidelines for Ecological Environmental Protection of Foreign Investment Cooperation and Construction Projects’, respectively. Unlike past regulations and guidelines that largely focused on the importance of respecting host-country laws and culture, CSR, and communicating with affected communities, these go further in emphasising the importance of companies following international rules and best practice for environmental protection, improving their internal environmental management systems and personnel, and integrating environmental considerations into the entirelifecycle of a project (Nedopil et al. 2021; Wang 2022). In host countries where environmental governance is weak or insufficient, these guidelines recommend Chinese companies adopt the standards prevailing in international organisations or multilateral institutions, or China’s stricter domestic standards for investment and cooperation activities. Around the same time, following up on his earlier call for a green, clean BRI, President Xi announced at the seventy-sixth session of the UN General Assembly in September 2021 that China would no longer build new coal-fired power projects overseas and would focus on supporting the development of green and low-carbon energy in developing countries (UN Affairs 2021).

Looking Forward: Opportunities and Risks

These developments reflect progress in Chinese commitments in principle to adhering to social and environmental standards at the national and international levels. While they may seem incremental, they represent a welcome change from the originally clumsy, defensive, and even hostile responses of Chinese company and government representatives in the Letpadaung Copper Mine case nearly a decade ago. They also show that Chinese leaders and stakeholders are aware of, and sensitive to, the pushback they have encountered from civil society in the Global South. More importantly, given the Chinese responses have mostly been in the form of verbal and written commitments rather than actions, they provide an important opportunity for civil society groups to hold Chinese stakeholders accountable in practice by reminding them of their commitments and exerting pressure on their own governments and judicial institutions to enforce domestic human rights, labour, and environmental laws.

At the same time, civil society efforts to hold powerful government and corporate actors accountable are by no means risk-free. Reports of environmental and human rights activists in the Global South being harassed, detained, and even killed by host-country actors are all too common (Coalition for Human Rights in Development 2019). While the Save Lamu campaign was ultimately successful, a UN Environment Programme (UNEP 2019) blogpost noted that campaigners ‘encountered misinformation (sometimes deliberate), arrests, branding as terrorists, raided offices and further forms of harassment and intimidation’. In 2021, media reports emerged about the arrest of staff of an Ugandan CSO who had been working with communities affected by the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline being developed by the French company Total and the Chinese company CNOOC (Gyuse 2021; Inclusive Development International 2021b).

Civil society also faces risks from dealing with Chinese stakeholders who often hold unfriendly attitudes towards nongovernmental actors. One study’s interviews with Chinese companies in Myanmar found they had little understanding of and even suspicion about the motives of local and international CSOs (Cai and Zhou 2018). In the Letpadaung case, Chinese companies such as Wanbao viewed CSOs as outside instigators coming in to stir up community protests. Local and international CSOs are at times also wary of working with Chinese civil society groups on these issues given the Chinese Government’s increasingly draconian cooptation of, and restrictions on, those groups inside China (Tower 2020).

In this complex environment, civil society groups working to address the human rights impacts of Chinese overseas investment should be aware of the risks they face and put in place mitigation measures to protect themselves. They can do so, however, with the knowledge they will play a critical role in ensuring the realisation of the ‘open, inclusive, clean, and beautiful world’ promised in Chinese Government speeches and white papers.


[1] I use civil society and civil society organisations (CSOs) throughout this article to refer to a wide range of groups, including communities, informal associations, indigenous groups, social movements, as well as formally registered nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

[2] The current production-sharing contract, modified after protests in 2012, gives 51 per cent of the profits to the Government of Myanmar—represented by the state-owned company Mining Enterprise 1. Wanbao Mining’s share of profits was cut to 30 per cent and MEHL’s to 19 per cent (Win Ko Ko Latt and Soe Than Lynn 2013). The mine was previously owned by Canadian company Ivanhoe, and has a controversial history punctuated by conflict with local people (Yu 2021a).

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Shawn Shieh is the founder of Social Innovations Advisory, a consultancy dedicated to building a resilient civil society in the Global South. He is a Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute and a Research Fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He previously worked at China Labour Bulletin, and China Development Brief. Shawn received his PhD in political science from Columbia University, has published extensively on Chinese overseas investment and civil society, and blogs about NGOs in China.