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Chinese organizations between state, development, and cooperation


New huge project: the hydropower dam in the Mekong on January 07,2019 in Luang Prabang, Laos
New huge project: the hydropower dam in the Mekong on January 07,2019 in Luang Prabang, Laos shutterstock

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is changing China’s engagement with the rest of the world. The initiative not only transports people and goods but also concepts and ideas to and from China. While Chinese companies were already active outside China prior to the BRI, Chinese civil-society organizations have had little experience abroad so far. Their integration with the Chinese state and the BRI framework, however, harbours potential for conflict. While civil-society organizations the world over must strengthen their China expertise, alternative paths will be needed for Chinese organizations to be able to establish themselves internationally and to shape a plausible and constructive dialogue.

In China, civil-society organizations mainly cooperate with rather than oppose the Party, the state, and the economy. Their concerns and their scope for action are shaped by the authoritarian system of the People’s Republic. There is a fluid transition from civil-society involvement to state control of such involvement. With the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI), the Chinese economy is expanding beyond its national borders. The relationships between state, economy, and society that characterise the People’s Republic, and the specific conception of these, are being transported to the partner countries.

Christian Straube has worked in the China Programme at Stiftung Asienhaus since 2019. He studied Modern Chinese Studies, Macroeconomics, and South Asian Political Science in Heidelberg and Beijing, and has a PhD in Social Anthropology from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. Translated by Sam Langer and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The new regulations for “social organizations” from the Ministry for Civil Affairs, available in draft form since 2018, aim to make civil-society organizations collaborate more closely with the Party and orientate themselves by the statutes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It can be assumed that more control by the CCP state will have a restrictive effect on the civil-society debates and the dialogue between organizations from China and partner countries about the BRI. Thus, during the first Silk Road Forum in 2017, NGOs were already assigned a concrete and complementary role in the BRI: improving “people-to-people” relations between China and partner countries.

A Place in the BRI for Civil-Society Organizations from China

With the second Silk Road Forum in 2019 it became clear that this narrow approach had to be modified. BRI projects have already had enormous social and ecological impacts, and continue to do so. Many Chinese companies do not communicate adequately at the local level in project countries. For the most part, their workers live separated from the local population. This “self-isolation” has engendered a negative perception of BRI projects among people who are immediately affected . NGOs in partner countries have their own interpretations of their role and have faced down Chinese companies, even to the point of halting projects. Decision makers on the Chinese side as well as in the partner countries have recognized that local populations and NGOs need to be integrated into the BRI from the ground up. Accordingly, it is claimed that the initiative will become greener, more inter-sectoral, and less commercial.

The question remains whether such integration can possibly be achieved by means of planned state control. A glance at the sources providing an overview of Chinese civil-society organizations’ international involvement in BRI projects reveals one thing above all: the preponderance of government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) and foundations closely connected to the state that focus on development and poverty reduction—like the China Foundation for Peace and Development and the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. Yet a multitude of other Chinese organizations—whether originating abroad, in Chinese companies, or from private initiatives—are also active.

Examples of Chinese Organizations in BRI Collaborations

As one of the leading Chinese NGOs in the field of sustainable development, the Global Environmental Institute (GEI) from Beijing not only carries out projects in BRI countries like Myanmar or Kenya. In addition, GEI has also worked on the structural framework conditions for Chinese organizations and their projects abroad. Thus in the past Chinese organizations were principally involved in humanitarian and medical aid via state-funded developmental aid measures. The GEI report, “Chinese NGOs ‘Going Global’” establishes that insufficient Chinese regulations, financing shortfalls, and a lack of capacity and experience prevent Chinese organizations from implementing projects abroad.

GEI’s recommendations for helping Chinese organizations in their international engagement are focused on foundational issues and reflect changes in international development cooperation. They extend from a departure from the material understanding of development through to new regulations and changes to Chinese laws. Chinese GONGOs have to take on a new orientation, away from the implementation of projects and towards the allocation of donations to other organizations. Chinese organizations need more active networking among themselves and sustainable cooperation with international NGOs.

In 2018, a Chinese umbrella organization from Beijing, China Association for NGO Cooperation (CANGO), undertook a research project on the environmental and social responsibility of Chinese companies, with International Rivers from the USA. The focus was on two dam projects in Laos and Cambodia as well as the relationship between local populations, civil-society organizations, and the participating Chinese companies. While CANGO investigated the mesh of actors around the reservoir dam projects, International Rivers looked into business duty-of-care concerns up to the exclusion of a project’s implementation due to the extent of the intervention in nature.

In its annual report, CANGO records which learning processes on the side of Chinese companies need to be initiated: from a readiness to work with civil-society organizations, exchange information, and take suggestions from the local population, through to the construction of enduring channels of communication between companies, government agencies, and civil-society organizations. International Rivers levelled the criticism that Chinese companies proceed in an excessively project-focussed manner, do not adhere to international standards, and often operate with insufficient oversight from partner countries. Like CANGO, International Rivers emphasizes the lack of transparency in approaches to environmental and social sustainability.

Many internationally active NGOs have gone beyond their national contexts in order to pursue particular economic actors and global value chains. They have been able to find points of connection with affected people and local organizations via their watchdog function in relation to state and economic activity. This collective critique has engendered solidarity and trust. A pre-established role for Chinese organizations in the context of the BRI as supplemental to economic actors from China offers little opportunity to develop solidarity. Trust is also difficult to build up where anti-Chinese resentment has arisen amongst the population due to the mixing of local politics with economic interests.

The BRI in the Context of China’s Global Engagement

The BRI represents an active move by the Chinese state and the CCP towards renegotiating the basic conditions of China’s integration into the rest of the world. In this sense the initiative has to be understood as a campaign by the Chinese party-state, with the aim of strengthening the Chinese government’s domestic political position: it defines a strategic goal and—rather than being an all-embracing master plan—functions more as a marketing label for Chinese projects in the process of renegotiating China’s global role. A myriad of investment projects already existed prior to Xi Jinping announcing the establishment of the “economic belt of the Silk Road”.

Although Chinese companies have been active internationally since Jiang Zemin called on them to “go out”, the internationalization of Chinese civil-society organizations has only begun to speed up since the commencement of the BRI. Chinese organizations operate across a broad and complex landscape of cooperation. Thus, Chinese development cooperation with other countries was from the beginning strongly trade focused and involved a plurality of actors.

Chinese financial flows have so far been concentrated on partner countries’ energy, transport, and industrial sectors. State-run companies endowed with a great deal of capital are subject to direct supervision by the State Council through the Commission for the Control and Management of State Assets. BRI development projects are opening up new sales markets for provincial enterprises. Private companies are following in their footsteps or take their own paths.

Comprehensive Chinese resources for the implementation of projects are often contrasted with very limited means of oversight as well as poor governance in the partner countries. At the same time, project participants from China encounter a broader civil-society landscape, comprising government organizations and well-organized, internationally networked NGOs. It is thus especially challenging for Chinese civil-society organizations, whose roles have been shaped by Chinese structures, to build trust with these organizations in partner countries. Where civil-society organizations are merely deployed as agents of project implementation, the suspicion that projects are being co-opted and whitewashed is constantly present. It is still unclear whether the sustainable participation of civil-society organizations in projects furnished with the “BRI” label will be possible, or what it will look like concretely.

Collaboration with Chinese Civil-Society Organizations

In order to sustainably build up “500 cooperation partnerships between NGOs along the BRI”, as set out in the second Silk Road Forum in 2019, Chinese civil-society organizations must find their own path “out”. NGO partnerships initiated by the state, or Chinese state approval of selected civil-society actors, will only make building up trust in partner countries more difficult. Chinese organizations have to gather more experience of the social and ecological context of BRI projects. This can only take place through new, independent dialogue formats in cooperation with civil-society organizations on the ground.

When it comes to China, civil-society organizations in BRI partner countries must have their expertise strengthened. Dialogue with Chinese organizations that have watched their country’s process of economic growth and criticized its consequences for people and the environment is essential for this. The exporting of a Chinese model of economic development can only be understood through the lens of China’s own political-economic trajectory since the era of reform and opening-up. China expertise is also needed in order to decipher the dynamics between the various protagonists of Chinese development in the context of the BRI. Only a strong civil society equipped with the relevant expertise will be able to participate in shaping the continual process of negotiation between local populations, companies, development banks, and state institutions, rooted as it is in the advantages and disadvantages of Chinese development cooperation.

Initiatives aimed at strengthening Chinese organizations’ internationalization, as for example the Asia Foundation-funded handbooks for social organizations from China, need to be extended. Apart from the focus on organizations’ capacities, their ability to participate in the international discussion about the BRI and in dialogue with civil-society organizations in BRI partner countries must also be strengthened. This is only possible if spaces for cooperation in order to create knowledge together with the help of collective “action-oriented research” related to BRI projects are opened up on the basis of trust, joint projects, and the ability to express and respond to criticism. The prospects for whether civil-society organizations from China can improve the sustainability of BRI projects and the living conditions of the affected people will depend on the extent to which these Chinese organizations engage with local contexts in the partner countries, and whether the dialogue with local civil society takes place on an equal footing.