Navigating Beijing’s Contradictions

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In Beijing on a mission for our China global program, more doors are opening for us than in the past. The emerging picture is still confusing. Understanding the contradictions of China’s overseas investment policies can be as difficult as navigating a Beijing traffic jam.

Only 72 days to go until the start of the Olympics, and Beijing is getting a facelift. We are staying in a neighborhood where I am the only Long Nose you will meet. Even in our little community, all the houses are getting repainted. And as I am writing this, the small street in front of our gate is getting freshly tarred.

Chinese people feel insulted by a Western public which only seems interested in the political aspects of the upcoming Olympics. But my reception here has been as warm as ever. People smile, greet, and offer me their seats on the subway. And an old man walks up to us to say that he is happy to be our neighbor.

In am visiting Beijing for two weeks to discuss our report, New Financiers and the Environment, and to catch up on new developments regarding Chinese overseas dam builders and financiers. In government buildings just as in our neighborhood, I am finding more doors open than in the past. Two years into our China global program, people may realize that we are serious, and not simply interested in bashing China.

In one of my meetings, I get a copy of China Exim Bank’s latest guidance note on the environment, which is more specific than the environmental policy of 2004, and which we will publish on our website soon. I learn about the Exim Bank’s interest in strengthening its environmental guidelines further. I meet a professor who advises the Ministry of Commerce and Chinese overseas dam builders, and who is eager to hear from NGOs about the impacts of Chinese dams in Burma. And I talk with a government official who has been asked to prepare environmental guidelines for overseas investments.

Beijing is a city of contradictions. Our shower is connected to a solar heater, and our household appliances are rated according to their energy efficiency, but the air is thick with smog. More than a thousand new cars hit Beijing’s choked streets every day, but the city is also building a word-class subway system at rapid speed.

The same contradictions are evident in China’s evolving global role. Chinese dam builders know no shame when it comes to the environmental impacts of their projects. But the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection is developing ambitious tools to rein in polluting companies which most other countries could be proud of. The Chinese media cannot report about the social and environmental impacts of overseas projects. But behind closed doors, officials will freely acknowledge problems and constraints.

Our program will continue to navigate the contradictions of China’s emerging global role, just as I will navigate the chaotic Beijing traffic jam again tomorrow.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog appears at