- Jingjing Zhang has been dubbed the “Erin Brockovich of China” for her work litigating against polluting companies on behalf of affected communities within the country.
- Now living in the U.S., she has switched her focus to Chinese companies operating overseas, many of them under the aegis of Beijing’s ambitious and far-reaching Belt and Road Initiative.
- But jurisdictional issues mean courts in China don’t yet hold Chinese companies accountable for their actions overseas.
- In an interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler, Zhang talks about her career, what strategies could lead the Chinese government to establish regulations governing overseas investment, and the influence of government policy on Chinese companies.
Western corporations have been inflicting environmental damage overseas for generations, but the sharp rise in the scale of China’s international ambitions and operations in recent years has put a spotlight on the impact of Chinese companies abroad. The emergence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the foreign policy strategy put forth by Xi Jinping that aspires to invest trillions of dollars in infrastructure projects globally, has further ratcheted up the stakes.
Within China, the central government has been emphasizing the importance of protecting the environment, including establishing nature reserves, promoting wind and solar energy, setting goals for reducing the “energy intensity” of its economy, and talking up the idea that the environment cannot be sacrificed for the sake of economic growth. But this mentality did not materialize overnight: There have been decades of hard-fought legal battles in China on behalf of the environment and communities affected by pollution.
Jingjing Zhang is one of those crusading environmental lawyers who helped put China on its domestic trajectory. Exposed to pollution that spewed from the state-owned chemical company where her parents worked in western Sichuan province in her youth, Zhang joined the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), China’s first nongovernmental environmental law organization, while in law school. With CLAPV she went on to win a class-action lawsuit against a chemical company for water pollution in Fujian province, a victory that led to her being dubbed “the Erin Brockovich of China,” a description she expresses “mixed feelings” about.
“In China, they changed the name so it didn’t use ‘Erin Brockovich’ but the Chinese characters meaning ‘Never never give up,’” Zhang told Mongabay. “The Chinese name of the Erin Brockovich film very much represents my approach: I never give up the fight on behalf of local communities struggling against big polluters and big corporate powers.”
Her experiences in China led to the realization that she needed to do more than provide legal aid to victims of pollution and other environmental problems.
“[I] saw any one case where one individual or family got compensation didn’t address the whole situation. It didn’t solve the social conflict, the pollution, and the injustice caused by rapid development in China,” she said. “[We] developed public interest litigation, which went beyond the individual tort case to address issues at a more systemic level, challenging the government and polluters.
“Public interest litigation became a very common way for a civil society organization in China to achieve their goals on the environment. And because it was a technical legal issue, rather than a political issue, this approach doesn’t offend or challenge Chinese government too much. It leaves us certain space to do our work.”
Now living in the U.S., Zhang has switched her focus to Chinese companies operating overseas. In the past five years, Zhang has traveled to about 20 countries for research and assisting local communities in their battles against Chinese companies that have inflicted environmental damage. For example, Zhang provided testimony on behalf of Kañari-Kichwa Indigenous communities in Ecuador who were affected by a Chinese mining company operating in Cajas Nature Reserve. She is also working with communities in Guinea that have filed complaints against China Hongqiao Group, a company that is part of a bauxite consortium.
Zhang says her work with communities and NGOs often comes at a relatively late stage. Getting involved earlier could give her more leverage. But an even bigger opportunity, says Zhang, would be getting courts in China to hold Chinese companies accountable for their actions overseas.
“There has yet to be public interest litigation filed in China on issues beyond China’s borders,” Zhang said. There have been no cases addressing environmental or human rights issues caused by Chinese overseas investment. Therefore public interest litigation is limited to domestic issues, but I certainly want to use impact litigation to address the issue in the BRI host country and then use Chinese courts. This would force Chinese companies to comply with not only Chinese laws, but also host countries’ laws.”
But she concedes it won’t be easy, due to jurisdictional issues. However, a recent case involving Shell Oil in the Netherlands and the U.K. could prove noteworthy because Chinese courts often look at precedents established in other countries to inform their own legal decisions.
“We consider the Shell Oil case in the Netherlands and the U.K. very significant,” she said. “Both cases are transnational: the parent company is based in these two countries, but the damage occurred in Nigeria. In the Netherlands, the result is clear: the parent company has the legal liability and is responsible for the damage. The U.K. case is not as far along in the procedure.”
Zhang spoke about her career, what strategies could lead the Chinese government to establish regulations governing overseas investment, and the influence of government policy on Chinese companies during a series of conversations with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.
An interview with Jingjing Zhang
Mongabay: What inspired you to get involved with environmental law?
Jingjing Zhang: I have been working on environmental issues for more than 20 years. I started my career as an environmental lawyer at the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV).
But my awareness about pollution and justice began much earlier than that. The middle to late 1980s were a liberal time in Chinese history. It was time after the cultural revolution when China started to open up to the world and old thoughts about political science and the law were re-examined. People were looking at the root cause of the cultural revolution and got interested in the idea of pursuing democracy. It was the ideas of that time that pushed me to go further to think about how law works and how we can use law to serve the people.
After getting my bachelor’s degree of law, I worked for a state-owned company, but then changed the job a couple of times. I was trying to find a career path and seek the purpose of life. I wanted to use laws to help people, but didn’t make it until 1997 when I enrolled in the Master’s of Law study at the China University of Politics and Law in Beijing and became a volunteer at the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims. It was China’s first non-governmental environmental law organization and worked to secure justice farmers who suffered from pollution, and helped them seek compensation and justice.
The more we did there, the more I realized that legal aid is not enough. I also saw any one case where one individual or family got compensation didn’t address the whole situation. It didn’t solve the social conflict, the pollution, and the injustice caused by rapid development in China.
So, I started thinking about how we can use laws to address social problems caused by pollution since the government wasn’t taking strong enough measures to protect and clean up the environment. That pollution damaged people’s health and their economic rights by damaging their crops and livelihoods.
I tried to use environmental law, which is my weapon, as my means to achieve justice and to help people. We started developing the way to use law to encourage people to participate in the decision-making process by getting society to pay attention to how decisions get made and the impact of those decisions. We wanted people to have a stronger voice that was heard by the government, polluters, and companies.
Between the year 2000 and 2008, the environmental movement in China made a lot of progress. For example, the State Council announced the governmental information disclosure act in 2008. This was important because it required more transparency from the government and corporations, including disclosure of the government environmental data and expanded to the recent legal requirements of corporate ESG data disclosure.
And we also established public participation in the environment impact assessment process and developed public interest litigation, which went beyond the individual tort case to address issues at a more systemic level, challenging the government and polluters. Public interest litigation became a very common way for a civil society organization in China to achieve their goals on the environment. And because it was a technical legal issue, rather than a political issue, this approach doesn’t offend or challenge Chinese government too much. It leaves us certain space to do our work.
Mongabay: When did you come to the United States and your current position?
Jingjing Zhang: I came here in 2014 because of a family reason.
In leaving China, I felt I lost the foundation for my work. But I came to explore a new, cutting-edge issue: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI was announced in 2013, but I had been paying attention Chinese overseas investment well before that when I was working on environmental and human rights in the Mekong river region with lawyers from Cambodia and Thailand on a Chinese hydro-power project.
Chinese overseas investment became my work here in the United States. I think this is an even bigger issue than my work in China. It’s also more challenging.
Mongabay: When you’re considering taking on a case around BRI, what are some of the characteristics you’d look for so that it would be worth getting involved with?
Jingjing Zhang: There is so much Chinese overseas investment that there is no shortage of projects— I get so many requests for help and assistance from different NGOs and communities from all over the world. Therefore, how to choose the project and the case to work on is an important question. As a lawyer, I always want to use laws but if laws are weak or not designed well, or if a case is in a very late stage, then it can be difficult to solve a problem efficiently. So I like to choose strategic mitigation or impact litigation, meaning using litigation to address bigger issues and to mobilize resources so that the legal remedy goes beyond just one person or one community’s need.
That is my idea, but oftentimes I have to look at any available lawsuits and also be responsive when my NGOs partners and communities ask to help with specific cases because there aren’t a lot of Chinese lawyers who can challenge Chinese companies in Africa or Latin America. My knowledge of how Chinese companies are structured and operate can be very helpful to communities.
Often when I’m brought into a lawsuit or case, it’s at the stage where the damage has already been done: people are already harmed and the environment has been destroyed. The earlier I can get involved, the better. Ideally it would be at the environmental impact assessment stage where early legal action is possible.
Mongabay: When you are pursuing a case, what jurisdiction are you typically looking at? Are you bringing cases under national laws within the country where the damage has happened or are you also considering Chinese laws and regulations that govern overseas behavior by domestically owned companies?
Jingjing Zhang: My job is to explore all the available legal avenues. The first legal avenue is local court in the Chinese investment recipient countries. That is the first line for the community to use and certainly, most of the cases I have been working on involve host countries laws and their court system.
Beyond the host country’s legal system, we have regional legal mechanisms like the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. Those regional human rights mechanisms can also be the legal avenue if we exhaust the local host country’s remedy.
And then there’s China of course. I am still aiming to use Chinese laws and Chinese legal system so that it becomes a transnational issue. The Ecuador vs Chevron case is an example of a transnational case and shows how difficult it is for the host country or communities to get compensation from the multinationals. The transnational litigation on environmental and human rights cases is always extremely difficult, but that does not mean I will give up this pursuit to use the Chinese courts.
Historically the U.S. and European countries are traditional investors in the global South. Oftentimes jurisdiction in those countries became alternative for the community to use. Looking at the recent development of the Shell case in the Netherlands and in the UK over oil pollution in Nigeria, which caused damage to local communities. The communities have been seeking the legal remedy locally in Nigeria but failed to get justice, and now they are filing a case in the Netherlands and the UK.
And so those two cases are exactly the type of case I’m pursuing and trying to find the first ever case involving Chinese investment causing damage in another jurisdiction, and to be trialed in China. But we all know China is a difficult country in that there’s no independent judiciary. Judges, prosecutors and lawyers are all required to serve for the Communist Party’s political mission. After 2012, under the current political leadership, China’s rule of law, legal reform, or any kind of political reform went backwards. .
So, it’s very difficult to file any kind of transnational case in China. But still it’s a legal avenue I’d like to try.
I think it’s China’s responsibility. If you want to be a global leader and if you are the biggest international investor–which is what China claims is its biggest contribution to the global order via BRI, then you have to take this responsibility. You cannot say, “It’s not my business and we don’t interfere with other countries’ business.” It’s your business. As a big economy in the world, you have this responsibility. You benefit from global trade and investment, and you have to take the responsibility. That is my thinking; not necessarily the Chinese leaders’ thinking.
My goal is to ensure my country is a responsible global investor by holding Chinese companies environmentally accountable because they are benefiting from the BRI, benefiting from the government’s support, and benefiting from this global trade and the investment. You have to take responsibility. Additionally, because China has signed on to many environmental and human rights treaties, it is also a legal requirement. It is a binding legal requirement for China to take such responsibility.
Mongabay: China’s state forestry authority has established guidelines which are supposed to govern behavior overseas, but it doesn’t seem like these are enforced. Why is that? Have these been tested from a legal standpoint?
Jingjing Zhang: Actually, I think this is a misunderstanding because China does not have many regulations governing overseas investment. China has many soft policies that are not designed to be enforced–they just function as a gesture to encourage companies to move in a direction.
How can we enforce policy? You need to have legal consequences which the national government can impose or provide economic incentive for companies to voluntarily follow those policies.
Oftentimes observers outside China don’t know how the bureaucratic system works in China. You have to analyze and look deeper to understand those policies. Some policies are very important, like the 14th Five-year Plan. It’s a policy, not law, but it requires all the stakeholders to do one thing and be inline with directives from the central government. But some policies are just for show. There’s an old saying in Chinese that if you want to judge someone, you should not only look at what he is saying, but what he’s doing. And if you look at what Chinese government is doing, you can tell if they are really regulating or managing outbound investment.
I don’t think the Chinese government has done enough to regulate overseas investment. If the state has regulations, those provide legal consequences for companies or government agencies. But those regulations are very few and only apply to the administrative approval processes This basically means these Chinese administrative agencies, for example, Ministry of Commerce and National Development and Reform Commission have to comply with those regulations when they review Chinese companies’ overseas investment. But there are not any laws asking those agencies to screen Chinese overseas investments’ environmental, climate impact and social impact
So, there is no environmental impact assessment requirement, no requirement of corporate due diligence on human rights, and no requirement on the disclosure of companies’ overseas conduct. I have been very disappointed to see every time the government announced those nice-sounding policies, there is no substance: no legal muscle behind them.
The state needs laws so that if companies or government agencies fail to comply, they face real legal consequences.
But Chinese governmental officials often argue against self-restraining because developed countries haven’t restricted their outbound investment. They would say: look at the U.S., there is no such a legal requirement for an American Corporation to conduct an environmental impact assessment for its overseas projects. When those U.S. companies were investing in Ecuador, in Africa, and other countries, the US government didn’t impose legal requirements on them. So why should China restrain itself and put these additional screening requirements on BRI projects? Those Chinese governmental officials may not follow closely on recent global trends of supply chain law and corporate conduct regulations. For example, some European countries and the EU are making stricter and stricter regulations to require their overseas investments under the public finance to be screened on the ground of climate and human rights impact; and some of those countries are making laws on corporate human rights due diligence, like French Duty of Vigilance Law.
Mongabay: I want to ask you about the Batang Toru hydropower plant in Indonesia. It’s hard to get confirmation of anything, but it was rumored that the Bank of China pulled out of that project, which had the effect of delaying the dam. Do you know anything about the circumstances of that situation, because it seemed like there was a lot of concern about reputational risk for the bank to be associated with a project that was potentially so damaging and controversial. And if not, is reputational risk a concern for Chinese banks?
Jingjing Zhang: I don’t know that project well, because my organization prioritizes on Africa. A case I am more familiar with is Kenya’s Lamu coal plant, where the courts halted the project and ordered a new environmental impact assessment. In that case, the Chinese companies and banks weren’t worried about Chinese laws, the concern was the local laws, the local politics, the safety and security concern, and the discontent expressed by local communities. It was similar in the case with the Myitsone Dam Project in Myanmar. There were various reasons contributing to the decision for Chinese companies and banks to withdraw but none of them were Chinese laws.
Mongabay: The Chinese government recently announced the next five year plan covering 2021-2025. What’s your take on it?
Jingjing Zhang: Chinese government signaled it will regulate outbound investment in the next five years, but the details are still unclear as this is a very new development. The Chinese government will probably look at developed nations’ laws and policies around public finance to inform the regulation so I will be starting a research project on comparative legislation in the E.U. the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia.
China commonly looks at other countries’ regulatory framework when developing its own regulations. For example, China looks at environmental permitting processes in the United States and environmental impact assessment rules.
Mongabay: There are also cases where it’s not necessarily law, but there are government actions that send a signal. For example, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund has certain rules on how they invest and divest. It’s similar with entities like the World Bank and the IFC, which again, are not laws, they are best practice and guidance. Building on that issue, how much direction do private sector companies in China take from the Chinese government? So, if the government establishes a rule for public procurement or something like that, will a Chinese mining company necessarily listen to what the central Chinese government is saying?
Jingjing Zhang: Yes, they must but the reality is companies often look for ways to go around the legal requirements, let alone those soft guidance.
China has a government-centric economy and if the Chinese government issues an order, companies are expected to follow it whether they are stated owned or private. So it’s different from the dynamics of a pure market-based economy like in the U.S. and E.U.
So the Chinese government sends strong signals, and not all companies follow what the government says. But if the issue is political or a priority of the government, it can be risky not to follow what the government wants. Jack Ma’s Alibaba is an example. The Chinese state is very powerful.
Mongabay: I’ve heard an argument that–consistent with its broader foreign policy–the Chinese government takes a non-interventionist approach with overseas investments. It will put pressure on Chinese companies to comply with laws if local governments enforce the rules. Is that an accurate characterization?
Jingjing Zhang: The non-intervention approach has been the long-time foreign policy in China, but the fact is that if China has significant economic power in BRI countries, or any other countries receiving China’s aid or investment, China has influence politically in those countries.
China cannot use the non-interference policy as an excuse not to take on its responsibility on the environment, climate and human rights globally. As a global economic leader, it now has this responsibility.
So with BRI, if China considers BRI a “public product” for the global community, then it needs to maintain the quality of the product. It needs to take responsibility beyond its borders.
Mongabay: Let me rephrase the question a little bit but using the example of Indonesia. In Indonesia, environmental law enforcement is weak so companies, whether they are American or Chinese, may not experience repercussions if they break the law. But if the Indonesian government were to start enforcing the law and saying, “You broke the law, so therefore you need to pay fines or go to jail” Do you think the Chinese government would accept that premise and say, “Well, Chinese companies operating in Indonesia need to respect the law because now the law is being enforced.”?
Jingjing Zhang: Yes, I think at least on the surface, the Chinese government is encouraging Chinese companies to comply with local laws in the host countries. Officially, the Chinese government has no excuse to blame the host country for enforcing its own laws.
But underneath, whether the Chinese government is happy to see a Chinese company receive a legal penalty or being required to pay compensation to a community, I don’t think Chinese government officials are happy to see that. This would be especially the case for a state-owned enterprise: Being penalized would be a real slap in the face of China.
Mongabay: Following up on that issue, in some places in recent years, there’s been some backlash against Chinese companies because of certain practices. Do things like protests in host countries against Chinese companies have an effect on Chinese companies’ behavior or the Chinese government’s position on overseas investment?
Jingjing Zhang: Certainly, this anti-Chinese sentiment in the host countries has an effect on policy and politics. Fundamentally, demonstrations affect the political and economic interests of China by damaging its image and reputation. I am certain that Chinese government is aware of it and has amended some policies and issued statements to reinforce the image of the Green and Clean Belt and Road. However, it fell short of taking real actions.
Regarding overseas Chinese companies, it is hard to tell to what degree they have changed because of community demonstrations in host countries. Some of them consistently repeated the same pattern of behavior in different countries. Asserting host countries’ political risk, instead of reporting land, labor and environmental conflicts, is used when Chinese company managers report back to the headquarters in China. It’s a way of blaming the host country’s politics, rather than the company’s misconduct, damages or other issues.
Mongabay: You mentioned earlier that the Chinese government looks at policies and laws in other countries as a sort of guide in the creation of new policies. Does the Chinese government also put a lot of weight in scientific expertise to inform decision-making and policy?
Jingjing Zhang: Yes. Scientific evidence is very important for the policymaking and legislative process, including environmental impact assessment and permitting. The Chinese government accepts scientists, economists and law scholars’ recommendations when making laws or policies.
But with overseas investment projects, there is no place for scientists to express their concern because there’s no screening of the environmental and climate impacts during the administrative approvals of these projects or investment. So, there’s no way for civil society organizations to bring scientists into the process like it is done with domestic projects.
If China makes an Outbound Investment Management Law, requires the environmental, climate and social impact assessment, and adds a mandate to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment to screen outbound investment projects, it could provide a channel and platform for scientific evidence to be used in the administrative licensing process. That’s my hope.
Mongabay: Chinese leadership doesn’t seem to appreciate direct criticism. What are effective ways to encourage the government to take action against destructive practices?
Jingjing Zhang: We could provide examples of best practice through academic literature and scientific evidence to the Chinese government. China looks to other governments for examples of policy, legal frameworks, regulation, and best practice. This is the reason why I would like to do comparative research on how Western countries screen and regulate their investment via public finance. From my previous experience, I can see that China could accept that knowledge and information into its legislation and policies.
From an individual company perspective, constructive competition is another effective way. Western corporations or multinationals provide an alternative for BRI countries who need investment and technology, and their better community relations, better environmental management and more cooperation, can put competitive pressure on Chinese companies to improve their operations. Competing on these measures can be more effective than directly criticizing the Chinese government. Directly naming and shaming is generally not a constructive tactic against China because of the importance of “face” in Chinese culture.
Mongabay: In December 2019, the China People’s Supreme Court issued an opinion implying that the domestic court system would consider hearing foreign environmental cases involving Chinese companies. Is that something you plan to test?
That is a second opinion issued by China’s Supreme Court regarding the Belt Road Initiative. And there was also one issued in 2015. The second opinion issued in 2019 touched upon the environmental issue. That gave a good signal, but doesn’t provide detailed instruction on how the Chinese court will accept the cases involving environmental damage and social impact caused by Chinese investment in a BRI country. And that law doesn’t change the civil and administrative procedure laws, which governs the jurisdiction requirement for any cases if we want to file in Chinese courts.
So, it cannot be used as law when we file a case. But it sent the signal that Chinese judiciary has noticed the environmental issues associated with Chinese investment in other countries. It shows that the Chinese government is aware of the environmental and social impacts that BRI investments are having overseas.
Mongabay: Can you explain the jurisdiction issue?
Jingjing Zhang: The civil procedure law has strict requirements for filing and accepting court cases. You either have to file the case where the damage or impact of damage occurred, or where the damaged parties live or register. It is difficult to overcome those jurisdiction requirements and directly require the parent company accountable for its subsidiary’s conduct overseas
So that is why we consider the Shell oil case in the Netherlands and the U.K. very significant. Both cases are transnational: the parent company is based in these two countries, but the damage occurred in Nigeria. In the Netherlands, the result is clear: the parent company has the legal liability and is responsible for the damage. The U.K. case is not as far along in the procedure
If we talk about China, this judicial opinion provides a vague single by showing it’s possible for a Chinese court to accept the case, but we still need to be compliant with the procedure laws, and we still have a lot of legal difficulties to overcome. As a lawyer, I still need to figure out how I can overcome the requirement of jurisdiction.
Mongabay: You’ve been called the ‘Erin Brockovich of China.’ How do you feel about that characterization?
Jingjing Zhang: Sometimes I have mixed feelings.
Erin Brockovich is a very well-known figure in the environmental justice movement in the U.S. And the movie itself is very popular, both in the U.S. and China. In China, they changed the name so it didn’t use “Erin Brockovich” but the Chinese characters meaning “Never never give up.”
So the Chinese name of the Erin Brockovich film very much represents my approach: I never give up the fight on behalf of local communities struggling against big polluters and big corporate powers. Never give away your rights or give up your fight.
The Chinese title of the film helps me explain my work. I pursue environmental justice like Erin Brockovich did for the community.
Mongabay: You have been working on environmental issues in China since the late 1990s. How has the climate for environmental legal work in China changed between say then, the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and today?
Environmental justice is one of the most promising areas to do environmental movement and achieve social justice and social reform. We started doing just individual legal aid cases and expanded that to public interest litigation that involves all sorts of the stakeholders from non-government organizations to prosecutor offices. It’s given a bigger voice to civil society, and prosecutor offices became a very active actor in using environmental public interest litigation.
But on the other hand, I found that space just too small and very slow. In China, litigation is also very expensive: you need to pay the lawyers, conduct the research, and find scientists. There are also a lot of requirements for a NGO to get qualified as a public interest litigation plaintiff. Not all NGOs have legal standing.
There has yet to be public interest litigation filed in China on issues beyond China’s borders. There have been no cases addressing environmental or human rights issues caused by Chinese overseas investment. Therefore public interest litigation is limited to domestic issues, but I certainly want to use impact litigation to address the issue in the BRI host country and then use Chinese courts. This would force Chinese companies to comply with not only Chinese laws, but also host countries’ laws.
Mongabay: Have you had any safety issues due to your work?
Jingjing Zhang: Yes, I was under the monitoring of the Chinese government when I worked in China.
I knew I was not welcome but I was prepared because I knew challenging and criticizing powerful corporations and the government was dangerous.
Mongabay: Have you had safety issues outside of China? For example, in places where Chinese companies may be associated with environmental damage or conflict, do people see you as a representative of the company or China? Have you faced discrimination because of your ethnicity?
When I visit a local community in BRI countries, I do sometimes feel initially misunderstood because the community’s only interaction with Chinese people is via representatives and workers from extractive companies. The xenophobia is rooted in their experiences with these companies.
For example, the village or district chief might ask me “Why are you coming here to help us? You are Chinese? You are supposed to help the Chinese company.” And I tell them that “I am helping all people who suffer from corporate power and pollution, no matter if the company is from China, from the US, or from Canada. I just want to be the community’s lawyer to fight against corporate power.”
When I was involved in the case in Ecuador, outside the courtroom there were people shouting at me, in my face, in Spanish that I needed to “Go back to China.” These protesters just assumed that I was representing the Chinese mining company. My local NGO friend explained to them that I was there to support the community’s case, not to support the Chinese company.
This situation can be confusing and shocking to local communities because they’ve never seen anyone from Chinese civil society there to help them. They always consider Chinese to be on the other side: Just here to take resources, damage the environment, pollute the water, and then leave.
So I think that I bring some hope into these situations and provide a more complex view of Chinese people as a whole. Chinese people aren’t just working for mining companies; there are Chinese environmental NGOs and there are Chinese human rights lawyers that have the same concern with your community. That we are fighting the same fight together.
I’m a global citizen and environment lawyer for the planet, not only for my country, not only for the communities within China.
Mongabay: Would you have any issues going back to China now?
Jingjing Zhang: Certainly not this year or last year because of COVID-19.
I believe that when I eventually bring the first pollution case against a Chinese company for its activities in Africa, the authorities will quickly start tracking me again. In 2015 and 2016 when I was in Ecuador supporting a community case against a Chinese mining corporation. After I showed up in the courtroom in Ecuador, the company quickly figured out who I was. Someone from the company contacted my father in my hometown and a friend of mine in Beijing and asked where I was. I think they wanted to buy my silence and get me to stop working for the Indigenous communities. I refused to talk with them.
After seeing some of my old colleagues in China were harassed only because they expressed different opinions from the government, or some of my fellow Chinese lawyers’ licenses were stripped because they represented political dissident clients, I of course felt the chilling effort, but it won’t stop me from doing my job.
Mongabay: Are there any upcoming cases in other countries that are on your radar?
Jingjing Zhang: There’s the Simandou iron mine in Guinea. China currently has tension with Australia, which is traditionally its biggest supplier of iron ore. The 2.4 billion tonnes of high quality iron ore at Simandou site is giving an ideal alternative for China of iron ore. But the Simandou forest is home to the Western chimpanzee and some other endangered species, and the source of rivers which run to neighboring countries and provide water resources to communities.
The project will include the open-pit mine, a 600km railway which only transport iron ores not passengers, and the port. All will cause a significant environmental biodiversity and climate impact. There has been a lot of controversy around the mine, including allegations of corruption.
The Chinese company involved in the project is an alumina and aluminum manufacturer, and doesn’t have experience running mining operations in China. It has a bad environmental performance in its bauxite mine in north Guinea This is risky in terms of potential environmental damage and threat to biodiversity. So I’m very concerned about this project.
We want to ensure that the Guinean government enforces its own laws and comply with international norms, since both China and Guinea are signatories of the Convention on Biodiversity. Since CBD COP15 ( (Conference of Parties) is being hosted in Kunming in Oct 2021 by China, now is the time to raise awareness about this project and send out warnings of its biodiversity and climate impact to potential investors in China and globally.