中国与世界,环境危机大家谈

china and the world discuss the environment

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Following the money

Meng Si

Readinch

As Chinese finance flows overseas, the country’s green groups are also expanding their horizons. Meng Si meets one home-grown organisation promoting sustainable business across borders.

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Chinese firms have radically stepped up their overseas investment activity in recent years. But the environmental impact of that investment has caused international controversy and China’s own environmental NGOs are starting to pay attention.

One such group is the Global Environmental Institute (GEI), a non-profit outfit headquartered in Beijing that has a particular focus on the environmental impact of Chinese finance abroad. Indeed, it is the first Chinese environmental organisation to successfully run a project abroad and, in 2009, set up an office in Laos.

In Laos and elsewhere, GEI would like to see Chinese companies strengthen links with NGOs. “We suggest that when Chinese firms are undertaking ‘compensatory work’ [i.e. recompensing communities that lose out from development, for example relocating local people to make way for a dam] as part of overseas investments, they consider partnering with civil society organisations rather than local government,” said GEI project manager Ren Peng. 

At a seminar in July, attended by academics and government officials, GEI introduced its work in this field and hosted a discussion about the current state of Chinese investment abroad and areas of concern. The event marked the launch of the organisation’s new book, Environmental Policies on China’s Investment Overseas – the first to be openly published on the topic in China – which includes two proposals for overseas investment regulations that have been submitted to the government for consideration.

GEI focuses mainly on issues surrounding investment in hydropower projects, such as impacts on fish migration, damage to vegetation and provisions for local people whose livelihoods and homes are lost as a result of such schemes.

In Laos, its work has centred on the Nam Ngum 5 hydropower project, which is located on the upper reaches of the Nam Ngum River, 350 kilometres from the capital Vientiane. It is a joint venture between Chinese engineering and construction firm Sinohydro, which holds an 85% stake in the scheme, and Electricite du Laos. Construction started in October 2008 and the first turbine is due to start generating power in October 2011. The dam will submerge some of the homes and most of the land of 57 farming households, at the same time taking away the livelihoods of the people who live there.

GEI is working on a community development plan to provide alternative means of earning a living, such as community forestry or methane generation – an effort that fits in with the organisation’s broader aims of finding new ways of supporting rural areas, promoting sustainable development and diversifying local income sources.

Ren explained that GEI aims to help the Nam Ngum project operate in a more responsible and sustainable manner, but not to undermine the whole scheme. “We have made it clear [to the companies involved] that we’re not there to oppose them,” he said. “We aren’t looking at whether or not the project itself is sustainable, as once something like that has started, it is virtually impossible to halt.”

Another aspect of GEI’s work here is a China-Laos cooperative project on sustainable land and natural-resources management. “There’s a complete lack of environmental legislation in Laos, and naturally companies investing there tend to set low standards for themselves,” said Ren. Since December 2009, GEI has organised two seminars on ecological compensation and land management, presenting best practice case studies from overseas. The deputy prime minister of Laos, Asang Laoly, attended one of these sessions.

According to Ren, companies investing in Laos usually pay compensation via the local government. However, a lack of transparency common to many developing nations leaves this method open to corruption – and the money often fails to make it to the communities. Some Chinese firms also help to build local infrastructure, such as schools and clinics. And while this has its advantages, there are also challenges, such as finding teachers to work in the school. Ren believes that NGOs can implement demonstration projects as models to showcase effective methods of delivering compensation.

Ren added that the problems associated with Chinese investment abroad are caused primarily by small and medium sized private firms (SMEs): “State owned firms are generally listed and need to publicise operational details, so they are more restricted in what they can do.” He told chinadialogue that some private SMEs operating copper mines in Africa, where there is a lack of oversight, use cash to open up mines when copper prices are high, only to abandon the site when the prices fall. “It’s like money-laundering – quickly in, quickly out. And as they don’t take out loans, there is nothing the Chinese government can do.”

Chinese SMEs are usually limited liability companies. As of 2008, ventures by companies of this type accounted for 50.2% of China’s total overseas investment, and Ren thinks this figure will increase. Unlike listed companies, these firms are not obliged to make certain information public, nor do they have the same incentive as state-owned enterprises to present a good image of China to the world. The only limits on their investments are the Ministry of Commerce’s annual audits and evaluations of overseas investment – but these do not look specifically at environmental impact.

Speaking at the GEI book launch, Yang Chaofei, head of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Department of Policies, Laws and Regulations, said that scarce resources and increasing labour costs at home were inevitably driving Chinese firms abroad. Meanwhile, Zhang Lijun, who runs the Asia department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that China and India are set to become the world’s main energy consumers and, while overseas investment is important if China is to become a stronger nation, the country will also be expected to act more and more responsibly.

According to GEI’s new book, Chinese firms are actively buying up natural resources around the world – including timber, mineral rights, oil and natural gas. In 2006, mining accounted for 40.4% of total Chinese overseas investment, with the majority going towards the extraction of oil, natural gas and ferrous metals.

The book quotes 2008 figures from, among others, the Ministry of Commerce, the National Bureau of Statistics and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, to point out that China’s overseas investments are concentrated in resource development and primary manufacturing. And, while investments have been made in 174 nations, there is a heavy focus on Asia (77.9%) and Latin America (6.6%). Just 9.8% of investment went to Africa in 2008, but within the following year, that figure went up 2.5 times.

Zhang Lijun added: “Certain countries feel uneasy about China’s rise, and the behaviour of overseas investors potentially provides them with something to use against us.”

“International opinion is still mainly controlled by the west, and bias does exist,” said Ren. “Some locals can’t even distinguish between different Asian faces, and assume they’re all Chinese. Hence China gets the blame.”

Ren believes that China does not promote itself adequately; it often does plenty, but talks little. In many issues, China’s own lack of openness is the problem. Ren gives an exchange with International Rivers – an international NGO working on rivers and dams – as an example. In September 2007, the organisation went to China to meet with Sinohydro subsidiary Sinohydro International Engineering. At the meeting, the two parties found that incomplete information had led to misunderstandings. Sinohydro was not involved with all of the projects International Rivers believed it to be. The NGO asked Sinohydro to double-check the list of purported projects, and the record was corrected accordingly. Peter Bosshard, policy director at International Rivers said: "I thought it was a good experience and it actually created confidence between Sinohydro and us.”

Ren believes that local NGOs should act as a bridge, helping organisations and companies to share accurate information. Others are more cautious. Fu Tao of China Development Brief, a publication that has long observed the development of Chinese civil society,told chinadialogue that with limited resources, energy, vision and opportunity, only a small number of organisations can currently get involved in this area.

Nonetheless, as Chinese firms are becoming more active overseas, so are China’s environmental NGOs. In 2008, NGO Green Watershed and eight other domestic organisations launched the Green Banking Innovation Awards in order to encourage banks to consider environmental protection when awarding loans for investment abroad. Another body, Minjian International, has raised awareness of overseas investment in intellectual circles. Its founder, the writer Chan Koon Chung, said in a letter to members that “China is already a powerful nation (though it is not a superpower, I think it is more powerful than mid-ranking powers) and it is time for China’s intellectuals to pay real attention to this.”

Meng Si is managing editor in
chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage image from Synohydro shows a consultation with villagers downstream of the Nam Ngum 5 hydropower project.

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很好的话题

对于中国企业的海外社会责任,现在国内关注的比较少,而有中国的民间组织在关注,的确是一个很好的开始。yfy

A good topic for discussion

At present, China does not pay too much attention to the social responsibilities of its overseas enterprises. That non-governmental Chinese organizations are starting to concern themselves with the issue is a really good start.


观念改变之前的必要一步

文中提到的做法存在风险,那就是投资者和制定项目人员会比现在更加大意,忽略项目对环境的影响,而给中国的形象抹黑。他们会假定两件事:一,会有人去照顾那些生活受到他们项目的负面影响的人们,二,会有人做一些事情,去降低项目对环境的影响。同样,通过边缘化中国地方官员,给他们看一下其他政府是怎么做的以及一个合格的政府应该怎样做,中国地方官员会感到危机感。

(此评论由董鹤冰翻译)

A necessary approach - until mind-sets are changed

A risk of such initiatives is that the investors and project contractors take even less care than they now do, earning China an even worse reputation. They would tend to assume that others will both manage the interface between those whose livelihoods are adversely affected and mitigate the project's environmental impact.

It would also tend to threaten local officials in China - by marginalising them and providing a comparison with what government could or rather should be doing.


挂羊头卖狗肉

李连杰都搞不定政府办个个人的慈善基金会,何况社会上有些宣称的非政府组织或者非营利机构了,绝大多数都是挂羊头卖狗肉,乘政府监管的漏洞,钻税收的空子,为的是自己赚钱。

再者,咱们国内的事情都没搞好,现在又急急忙忙跑到海外去,岂不是更可笑?我认识一些首都北京的协会,学会以及一些中美啦,中英啦的这个会那个会,有几个是本着奉献精神搞节能环保,社会公益的?整天谈的都是钱,如何赚钱。

有一个学者说的一针见血,在政府眼中,非政府组织都是反政府组织,非营利机构都是必盈利机构,如果我是政府的人,我也会这么想。做好事?当雷锋?你骗谁啊!

cry up wine and sell vinegar

Even Jet Li's One Foundation can't win the favor of the government, not to mention other so-called non-governmental or non-profit organisations, most of which have ulterior motives: they take advantage of loopholes in government scrunity and taxation for their own profit.

Moreover, it is ridiculous for Chinese NGOs to try to solve problems overseas when there are so many domestic issues unsolved. I know some associations and societies in Beijing, some Sino-US or Sino-UK ones. How many of them are really devoted to the good cause of conservation or social development? As far as I can see, all they want is money.

One good point made by a scholar is that in the government's viewpoint, all NGOs are anti-government; all NPOs are for profit. If I worked for the government, I would think the same: the fact that NGOs and NPOs work for the benefit of the public is nothing but a lie.

(this comment is translated by Dong Hebing)


Censorship

It is ridiculous that one of my comments here has been neglected, sort of censorship favored by the Chinese government. My advice to the censors, or editors here is, protection of the environment starts with the protection of the free speech on THIS issue. You can talk a lot about superficial stuff, and without touching the very root of the environment problem, you could achieve nothing, today or tomorrow.The root is environment is where people, millions of people live and they must have a say.SO basically it is a movement start from grassroots who care about the water they drink, the food they put into their mouth, and the air they breathe. They are all very basic stuff for life, and we know what life means, don't we? The local environment issue can only be felt at the local level where these people live, not someone at a remote place giving orders. Ooops, may this be published or censored as well.

审查制度

我在这儿的一条评论居然被删了,太荒谬了,这不正是中国政府最喜欢的审查制度?我对审查者和这里的编辑的建议是,保护环境从保护讨论环境问题的言论自由开始。你可以滔滔不绝地讲一些肤浅的东西,但如果不提问题的根本,将不会起到任何实质性效果。问题的关键是,环境即人们居住的环境,居民必须对此具有发言权。因此,应该从关注自身饮水问题、食物问题和空气问题的基层人民开始抓起。这些问题都是生活的必需品,当地环境问题只有居住在其中的人们可以感觉到,而不是由某些在远处的人胡下指令。噢,希望这篇回复被刊登或者又被审查掉。


回复评论4

谢谢您的评论。解释一下,有时候您发表的评论不能立即被发布,因为每一条评论都将由中外对话的工作人员进行审核。

Response to comment 4

Thank you for your comment. In explanation, there is sometimes a delay between the posting of a comment and its publication, as each comment has to be approved manually by chinadialogue staff.


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