Dear China, it's time to talk

Despite saying it takes multilateral cooperation seriously, China has not yet responded to civil society concerns in Latin America

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litio argentina

A salt mine in Argentina, where Chinese-backed lithium projects are being carried out amid opposition from local communities (image Alamy)

At the end of April, 263 civil society groups from around the world sent a letter to the heads of various Chinese institutions about financial aid to help coronavirus-affected projects connected to the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s global infrastructure programme. They asked for support not to be given to projects that had posed social, environmental, climatic or financial risks before the pandemic struck.

Crucially, in their announcement of the aid, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the China Development Bank (CDB), had stated that projects receiving financial support to mitigate losses caused by the virus should be “high quality”, “legally compatible” and pose “controllable risks.” In their letter, the civil society groups identified 60 Chinese projects, 14 of them in Latin America, in sectors including mining, pulp and paper, hydropower, construction, and fossil fuels, that do not meet these criteria. In the absence of a clear definition from MOFCOM or CDB, the groups suggested 10 principles that a project had to meet to be considered “high quality”. These include ensuring credible and robust environmental impact assessments; obtaining free, prior and informed consent; a commitment not to impact key areas of biodiversity; alignment with international environmental and human rights standards; and alignment with China’s own guidelines such as the Green Credit Directive.

On 20 May, 73 Latin American organisations sent another letter to MOFCOM and the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC), which supervises China’s state-owned companies. They said certain companies had failed to comply with sanitary measures to avoid and handle cases of Covid-19, and had committed blatant violations of workers’ rights in Peru, Argentina and Ecuador. They named Minera Chinalco Peru; Shougang Hierro Peru; MMG Las Bambas S.A.; China Andes Petroleum; Ecuacorrientes S.A. (a consortium of China Railway Construction Company and Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group Holding Company); and China Gezhouba Corporate Group, in partnership with Hidrocuyo S.A. and Electroingeniera S.A.

They have not received a response from any of the 19 Chinese government entities, including MOCFOM and the SASAC, nor from the various Chinese embassies in the region to whom, after monumental work, the two letters were successfully sent. Detective work is often required to find contact information for authorities and public officials of different Chinese ministries, agencies and embassies. The same is true of embassy representatives.

Most websites are incomplete and/or outdated, fax numbers do not work, and even express mail services report that envelopes are not received by people and institutions in China. In some cases, members of our organisations went to the Chinese embassies in our countries to physically deliver the letters. Unfortunately, doormen in some of them refused to sign the documents of receipt.

We face similar challenges when we seek information from the China Development Bank, the China Export and Import Bank (Eximbank), the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and the Bank of China, which finance loans and investments in Latin America. Even the China Development Bank, the largest Chinese lender to Latin America, does not publish its loan portfolio by region, country and sector, nor does it publicise its environmental assessment methods and requirements in its operations, or offer contact points for civil society groups to communicate with at the country level or in China.

On 10 July, we sent a new letter to the Chinese Foreign Ministry reaffirming our desire to establish constructive communication with Chinese entities and urging the ministry to engage with embassies, ministries and other Chinese institutions, asking them to publish updated contact information of key representatives. The “vision of a global community with a shared future”, as proposed by China’s State Council in the document “Fighting Covid-19: China in Action” is not viable if China continues to ignore our letters and requests.

Our organisations believe in the State Council when it states that “solidarity and cooperation are the most powerful weapons available to the international community in the war against the pandemic.” For this reason, we hope that the Chinese Foreign Ministry, today more than ever, recognises the benefits of dialogue with Latin American civil society organisations. The first step is to help the ministries, banks, embassies and other institutions we have mentioned by providing updated contact information and open channels of participation to discuss these issues.

After all, China is the second largest economy in the world, genuinely committed to multilateralism and people-to-people exchanges, and a world leader in communication technology.