China’s Cambodia ventures need NGO outreach

“Ten years ago, there was no Chinese investing in electricity. If you talked to me for one hour, the lights would have gone out more than 5 times. 10 years later, you talk to me even for 10 hours and there will be no blackout because of the investment in electricity production by China,” said Suon Sophal, director of the Department of Public Relations and Promotion of Private Investment of the Council for the Development of Cambodia.

Over the past 10 years, China has dominated the investment in hydropower projects in Cambodia. But “concerns have been raised by civil society and communities affected by hydropower projects about the attention being paid to the negative effects; and public consultation is inadequate,” according to Open Development Cambodia, an NGO based in Phnom Penh.

Meach Mean, the coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, told The Cambodia Daily in 2014 that there was deep concern over widespread illegal logging and fishing beyond the designated construction zone for the Sesan II project. He added that letters sent to the Chinese embassy and the companies involved had gone unanswered.

China’s investment in Cambodia is receiving growing attention beyond the concern raised by the 3S Rivers Protection Network. Among the NGOs focusing on environmental conservation, labor issues, human rights that we talked to in Cambodia in January 2019, most of them mentioned communication issues with the Chinese community, which is gradually becoming a problem for China’s citizens investing and trying to integrate into Cambodian society. What’s the reason and what can be done to address the problem?

First, misunderstanding about NGOs has long existed in Chinese society which makes Chinese enterprises abroad try to minimize communication with them. The older generation of Chinese is not familiar with NGOs and some may not have a good impression of them.

“We never reach out to NGOs or local communities proactively because we want to avoid trouble. Only when they come to raise funds for a school ceremony or football match, do we donate some money for sponsorship,” a senior manager of a Chinese factory said.

Local NGOs find cooperation from Chinese enterprises is not forthcoming and it takes a long time to build trust. Understanding NGOs and local culture, welcoming them and having a nice conversation should be the first step for engagement.

Second, strong links to the government may put off NGOs and make communication harder, even causing problems when investing in developing countries.

“As Chinese enterprises lack sufficient experience of global operations, they tend to copy domestic business models in conflict zones. They focus on building relations with senior government officials and creating a ‘double- speed’ economy in conflict-affected nations,” writes Dr. Jiang Heng in his book An Evolving Framework for Outward Investment: A Chinese Approach to Conflict Sensitive Business.

The resettlement issue in China- invested hydropower dam projects is a big complaint of NGOs. Pouy Keang, Business & Peace Program coordinator of AFSC Cambodia said, “Chinese enterprises do provide the budget for the resettlement of indigenous people, but they give the money directly to the government. We don’t know how much is left for the local community.”

She suggested that if Chinese enterprises could recruit local people to their public relations team and hire local professional NGOs as consultants, the misunderstanding and lack of communication could be addressed.

Third, transparency of information is another concern for Chinese enterprises in Cambodia. Take a hydropower project as an example. NGOs always find it hard to get hold of the EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) report that should be released before construction starts. An NGO representative in Cambodia said that sometimes they are invited by the government for an EIA report consultation meeting, but they only get one week to do the field research which is not enough. Even after they give suggestions to the company, they never get to know if they have been acted upon. The lack of transparency causes suspicion, which is the source of conflict.

One solution is improving the information channel. For example, many State-owned enterprises have realized the importance of CSR (corporate social responsibility) and have undertaken projects including building houses and hospitals for the community, provide food and jobs to indigenous people. Such activities are included in their annual report but society seldom comes to know about it. Chinese enterprises need to improve communication and reach out to NGOs and local media outlets to dissipate information in society.

China has undertaken massive global investment under the Belt and Road initiative, but we still have a long way to go in learning to engage with the world. An open mind about NGOs, appropriate communication channels and methods are needed. The truth is what President of Cambodia Labor Confederation, Ath Thorn said, “The solution is not for Chinese people to be more like Cambodians, or for Cambodian people to become more Chinese, it is for both groups of people to find a balance where they can coexist.”

By Wu Dinan Austin and Huang Ye

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