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How green is Xi's Belt and Road?

Image credit: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)

As the world begins to engage with the reality of Xi’s gargantuan vision for a ‘shared future for mankind’ through China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), what happens at the grass roots can be easy to dismiss as inconsequential.

From an official state media perspective, what differentiates the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) from other historic mega-infrastructure behemoths like America’s Marshall Plan (the main beneficiary of which was the United States itself) is that BRI ‘will ensure peace and prosperity for China itself, China's neighbouring countries, as well as the world’. According to Chinese officials, the BRI is introducing enlightened leadership in a world dealing with the ever-expanding power vacuum left by the US’ global retreat. It’s a leadership that is built upon principles of ‘green development and ecological civilisation’, not least because those principles need to be seen to be acted upon domestically in China to quell the protests of a growing environmental movement.

Lizzie Parsons, from the international corruption and environmental NGO, Global Witness says, “Xi Jinping has articulated bold aspirations for China’s future domestic development to be aligned with environmental considerations.”

“Meeting these same aspirations outside the borders will also be vital for communities situated along the Belt and Road investment corridors. However, there are few indications yet that companies are prioritising environmental or social concerns above economics.“

As idealistic domestic media portrayals of the BRI begin to go global, what is the reality of that vision’s creation on the ground? At the moment, there has been very little coverage of internal opposition to BRI.

This is not to say that there are not voices that want to be heard – Friends of the Earth (FoE) have recently compiled a number of compelling case studies alongside rigorous analysis to provide an insight into the muddier paths the BRI is forging.

Using China’s own Green Credit Guidelines, which are a genuine exemplar for international banks to use when considering investment projects, FoE measures up how much attention Chinese banks are paying to those guidelines five years on from their creation. Huang Zhong, a researcher working on social impacts of Chinese investment overseas, says that "admittedly, China’s strong commitments are self-imposed, however, their fulfilment will ultimately depend on functional safeguards, accountability mechanisms and the operators on the ground."

For those searching for an ideological light in the consuming darkness that is Trump’s twitter account, the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) policies on ecological civilisation and a green future could be considered to offer a genuine alternative to America’s global leadership. Unfortunately, for those consuming that propaganda without a pinch of salt, the findings of the FoE report may come as hard to swallow.

Using first-hand evidence, the report reveals that numerous Chinese state banks have invested in projects in BRI countries resulting in not only the destruction of unique environments and broad human rights violations, but also the deliberate creation of dirty coal projects where none have existed before. From constructing Kenya’s first ever coal power plant on the UNESCO-listed idyllic island of Lamu, to disappearances of those refusing to relocate to accommodate the Sasan Ultra Mega Coal Plant in India, to the impending ironic destruction of a 1300-year old archaeological mecca that was once a major stop on the Silk Road in Afghanistan, the impact of Chinese bank-funded projects are having major lasting effects on communities and environments that have little resources to protest their own destruction.

Of course, it is a given that when such large-scale investment occurs in such delicately unstable regions, there is bound to be some collateral damage. While these projects may not be so different in their genesis from the bloody exploits of Western dominated multinationals like Shell in Nigeria and Unocal in Myanmar, there are two clear differences between those still tarnished corporate names and the names of Chinese banks that are only in the nascent stages of developing their global image.

The first is that, quite simply, corporate social responsibility is no longer purely a flashy new buzzword, but now consists of industry-led standards that ensure the protection of stakeholders in a project, as well as sustainable returns to investors. The second is that these projects are publicly linked to the highest echelons of Chinese political power in a way that international multinationals could only have previously dreamed of (and did occasionally succeed in achieving under the table).

While the global world order may not require the CPC to deal in democracy, ensuring approval ratings amongst the bulwark of Global South nations will be central to China’s increasing dominant engagement with international forums. In making that bid for power under a banner of the BRI, the CPC should ensure that its banks embrace action on the rhetoric, which provides a genuine hope for a green future.

“The incentives for companies to abide by such guidelines and independently demonstrate good practice are lacking,” says Parsons.

“More needs to be done to inform companies of how to reduce the risk of harms resulting from their operations - which may be detrimental both to host country communities and their own bottom line - whilst also developing incentives to ensure such responsible business is the expected norm”.

Chloe Dempsey is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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