This blogpost first appeared on Business & Human Rights Resource Centre on 11 March 2021.

In its new White Paper for International Development Cooperation issued in January 2021, the PRC government presents a more comprehensive vision of China’s role in addressing global development challenges through international development cooperation (IDC) with a focus on South-South cooperation. It calls for greater alignment between IDC, China-backed initiatives such as the BRI, and multilateral initiatives such as the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As Hong Zhang points out, the White Paper opens the possibility for China’s signature BRI to include “softer” knowledge-sharing and capacity-building programs, financed by foreign aid, to complement the “hard” infrastructure and industry projects financed by commercial sources. This would be in line with other developments inside China: President Xi Jinping’s call at the 2nd Belt and Road Forum in 2019 for cleaner, greener, high-quality infrastructure projects that are more “sustainable, affordable, inclusive, and accessible”; and efforts by Chinese industry associations, banks, and companies to be more proactive about addressing social and environmental risks in their project[1].

These recent developments would be welcome given problems in earlier BRI projects, including growing pushback from countries concerning growing debt burdens, lack of transparency of investment and loan agreements, and negative social and environmental impacts of BRI projects. As others have noted, if China could deliver on raising the quality of the BRI, then it could make a significant contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[2].

However, we need to be realistic about how far Chinese stakeholders will go in delivering on more sustainable, inclusive development in the global South given China’s own development experience. To what extent can we expect this alignment to take place? What are the limits of this alignment?

In an upcoming China Horizon Scanning report mapping China’s policy and laws related to social inclusion, we found that China has issued an impressive number of policies, laws and regulations promoting the rights and interests of vulnerable groups over the last two decades[3]. But it falls short on delivery, such as making these policies and laws actionable so that they can be implemented and enforced, particularly in the energy, health and transportation infrastructure sectors.

To be fair, other developing countries have a similar problem. But unlike many developing countries, China lacks an important ingredient that limits its willingness and ability to enforce these policies and laws: an active civil society, which includes independent media, advocacy organizations, academics, and trade unions. Over the last seven years, in an effort to consolidate its power, the Communist Party has essentially either sidelined or coopted civil society’s ability to monitor policy, and advocate for vulnerable groups[4].

Gender equality, otherwise known as SDG #5, is a timely example given that we just celebrated International Women’s Day. It is included in the White Paper in Section IV Contributing to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development after a discussion of other SDGs such as Poverty Alleviation, Food Security, Health Care, and Quality Education, and calls for “safeguarding women’s rights and interests” and “empowering women.”

But we need to remember that it was only five years ago, March 7, 2015, on the eve of International Women’s Day, that five female activists were arrested by police for planning a campaign against sexual harassment in China’s public transportation system. The Feminist Five, as they came to be called, were detained for 37 days, and eventually released thanks in part to international pressure. These days, gender equality has become a sensitive topic in China and women’s groups, which are monitored and harassed by police and security forces, have gone quiet.

Without an independent civil society to monitor and hold authorities accountable, the Chinese government has grown used to doing things on its own terms. There is little pressure on authorities to implement and enforce policies unless that pressure is coming from the top leadership. Many of the researchers and NGO leaders we interviewed for our China Horizon Scanning report commented on the hamstringing of civil society’s ability to monitor China’s social inclusion policies and laws, and were pessimistic that this situation would change anytime soon. In their eyes, China, which has always been a top-down society, has become even more top down in recent years.

China’s fixation on poverty alleviation is a good example of the top-down nature of policy in China[5]. President Xi has pledged to eliminate extreme poverty by 2020, taking an income-based approach, by raising the incomes of those in rural areas above the poverty line. Since the leaders have proclaimed it, the goal will be met. Yet in the process, little attention is paid to equality-related challenges, to how poverty affects different groups in China such as the urban poor, people with disabilities, women, or ethnic minorities unequally[6]. China may be less poor by 2020, but not more equal or more inclusive.

This brings us back to the BRI and China’s vision of promoting sustainable and inclusive growth in the global South as part of its contribution to what the White Paper calls a “vision of a global community of shared future.” China’s domestic experience suggests that we should be skeptical about its leaders delivering on their international commitments. China may be willing to follow through on areas such as climate change, or public health, where it does have a track record in China. These are issues that China’s leaders feel they can use to bolster China’s leadership in the global South. But they will be less willing to champion other issues such as gender or inclusion which have become marginalized issues in China.

It may come as no surprise then that the section on gender equality in the White Paper only mentions women’s health care as an example of “safeguarding women’s rights,” and vocational and technical training to increase women’s employment and economic and political participation as an example of “empowering women.” While these are important, there is no mention of other issues included under SDG #5 such as discrimination, gender-based violence (including sexual harassment), and valuing domestic and care work.

China’s leaders will find that their top-down approach will not play well outside of China. Inside China, where the party-state can control the message and civil society lacks a voice, Chinese leaders are used to getting their way and earning the trust of its population in the process[7]. But outside China, where there is an independent civil society capable of and willing to hold governments accountable, Chinese leaders will not enjoy the same reception.

[1] Shieh, S., Borodyna, O., Zhong, H. and Yue, J. (2020) China Horizon Scanning Report: mapping gender and social inclusion in China in relation to infrastructure (draft). ODI Report. London: ODI.

[2] Horvath, B. (2016) Identifying development dividends along the Belt and Road Initiative: complementarities and synergies between the Belt and Road Initiative and the Sustainable Development Goals. Scoping Paper 1. 2016 High-level Policy Forum on Global Go.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Shawn Shieh, “Remaking China’s civil society in the Xi Jinping era,” ChinaFile, 2 August 2018.

[5] This was one of the takeaways in the 2015 report on China by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights after his mission to China.

[6] Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme Poverty and human rights on his mission to China, pp.9-12.

[7] Matthew Chitwood, “For China, ending poverty isn’t enough,” Foreign Affairs, 19 November, 2020.


Shawn Shieh, Ph.D., Founder and Director, Social Innovations Advisory. Shawn has 15 years of experience working to strengthen civil society and social movements in China and the Asia-Pacific. His current interest is in exploring strategies and models for sustaining civil society and movements in closed spaces such as China, and helping civil society respond to China’s growing global influence. He founded Social Innovations Advisory, Ltd., in 2018, and is a Contributor to Rights CoLab. Previously, he worked at China Labour Bulletin and China Development Brief. He also serves as a research fellow at several universities and think-tanks.


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