When talk of China`s involvement in Eastern Europe turns to engagement with Belarus, it usually revolves around China-Belarus industrial park Great Stone – the “flagship” project of bilateral cooperation. This is not surprising: as the centre of attraction for Chinese investments, the Park has been initially valued by both sides as one of the core projects associated with China`s Belt and Road Initiative in Eurasia.
Remaining the largest China-Belarus project in terms of scale and expectations, the Park is, however, not the only considerable undertaking on which the Belarusian authorities have pinned their hopes for partnership with China. It may occasion some surprise that not much light has been shed so far by the official media on several other noteworthy undertakings. The reason is perhaps that they have provided examples of failures and setbacks. Exceptions or symptoms? What insights can be drawn for making the future projects successful? Here I intend to share some of my preliminary observations regarding these questions.
Views from China
Lately, I have studied the spectrum of opinions within Chinese expert community regarding the key aspects of cooperation between China and Belarus. It was of interest to find out that almost all experts I interviewed, among other dilemmas, touched upon the same weak spot of China-Belarus economic interaction. In one way or another, they all spoke of insufficient mutual understanding of the legal norms, environmental regulations and working habits. According to some respondents, this problem leads to undesirable financial losses and, sometimes, even termination of the signed contracts. Let us add the discrepancy between the technical standards adopted in China and Belarus (which gains quite a lot of attention in relevant Chinese publications) and we get the typical expert idea (and perhaps the impression received by the Chinese partners) of why several recent projects became unsuccessful. How were these projects perceived in Belarus? What problems have been revealed and what lessons can be learned?
The longer you look, the more you find
The most demonstrative example of an unsuccessful cooperation project is the Svetlahorsk pulp mill (the Gomel region in the South-East of Belarus), an undertaking that has been referred to by the authorities as one of the largest industrial projects in the country. The cost of the project, launched almost ten years ago to decrease Belarusian exports of raw wood, was estimated at $850 mln, of which almost 80% covered by tied loans given by China`s state-owned banks (Exim Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China). The construction works were carried out by China CAMC Engineering Co., Ltd. The Belarusian Production and Trade Concern of timber, woodworking and pulp and paper industry „Bellesbumprom“ was the state company which supervised the project from the Belarusian side. After several delayed but still unsuccessful launches of the pulp mill, the contract with the Chinese partner was terminated in 2019, and „Bellesbumprom“ announced that it would complete the project independently. The case has revealed a number of serious problems:
- implementation of the project without taking into account the local (Belarusian) technical standards and ecologic requirements;
- environmental risks (air and water pollution) that led to the prolonged conflict between the local citizens and authorities; non-violent resistance of the local community;
- funds and time loss, a need of complex reconstruction works, in which there were fatal accidents;
- overall lack of transparency in running the project, a lack of detailed information on the technical process and on the quality of installed equipment, which led to rumors reinforcing mistrust in both the Chinese partners and the local management.
The pulp mill is not the only China-funded export-oriented project fraught with challenges. The list can be expanded by more cases, such as the Dobrush cardboard factory. Here, the agreement with the Chinese contractor was also terminated after several years of commissioning delays. In the case of the BelGee car plant, the observers point out inconsistency between the initial high expectations of export sales and the reality of the strict localization criteria of the EAEU market. As for the Brest battery plant, non-transparent implementation led to the increasing concerns of the local citizens over ecological consequences. Non-violent resistance and the activity of the local eco-movement continue to this day.
Such examples reveal, above all, the problem of discrepancy between the technical standards accepted in China and Belarus. Being initially ignored, it led to disagreements over the quality of the industrial projects. Even more salient problems, moreover, are the lack of public accountability and the shortage of detailed, open information on the environmental impacts of the projects. In the case of the Svetlahorsk pulp mill, domestic environmental risks even started to get externalised. The Ukrainian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment expressed concerns over the contamination of the Dnieper River by the tributary river Berezina, allegedly polluted by the wastewater coming from the enterprise.
In the recent years, public reaction to the ecological damages caused by the Svetlahorsk pulp mill and the Brest battery plant has posed the threat of reputational losses of China in Belarus. Furthermore, growing popular frustration with the authorities and local management has highlighted the conflict potential of the society and rallied local civil groups.
Any lessons to be learned?
The outlined cases and the studied estimations of Chinese scholars pose questions for further thinking. At first glance, juxtaposing the views from China and Belarus, we notice differences in perceptions and approaches to cooperation. If not detected and bridged in time, these perception gaps might lead to the repetition of the same mistakes and eventual mutual dissatisfaction. Chinese experts have even pointed at the fallacy of the notion (shared by the Belarusian authorities) that China regards Belarus as an indispensable partner and is, therefore, ready to provide unlimited financial resources. In other words, cooperation, officially designed as pragmatic and mutually beneficial, sometimes suffers from its distorted perception by Belarusian officials, who at times count too much on China`s interest in investing in Belarus.
At the same time, the views from China and Belarus indicate a lack of unbiased information and complex empirical observations as both sides see and present the picture a bit rosier than it is. Moreover, the absence of information sharing with the public in the form of providing detailed reports sets a negative popular perception of China`s involvement. Reversing this trend would be indeed beneficial for both partners in their further cooperation. In the ideal case, the health of the local citizens and the environment should be the priority.
Dr. Maryia Danilovich is an Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations, Belarusian State University. During her fellowship at Leibniz ScienceCampus Eastern Europe – Global Area in Leipzig Maryia Danilovich will start a new research project, dealing with self-positioning of Belarus in the world order of global competition.