In 2017, Chinese environmental lawyer Jingjing Zhang (张兢兢) visited a village in Sierra Leone, near a Chinese-owned iron-ore mine. Sierra Leone was recovering from its devastating Ebola epidemic, and wanted to attract new business and investment. Zhang was there conducting independent research on the environmental and social risks of China's overseas investments. As she walked through the village, the children excitedly repeated one word over and over. Zhang later learned the word meant "white." As it turned out, no one in the village had ever seen a Chinese person before. Although the mine was polluting the local water supply, and a major labor dispute had already developed, Chinese representatives from the mining company had made no efforts to meet—let alone consult—with the surrounding communities. Even the local district chief said that he had never met with any Chinese managers.
For Zhang, the episode highlights major shortcomings in China's "go global" policy and practices. The Chinese government encourages Chinese companies to invest abroad, and outbound activity is occurring on a massive scale. Between 2005 and today, according to one estimate, "the value of China's overseas investment and construction combined is approaching [U.S.]$2 trillion." China has clearly benefited from international trade and investment, as well as access to global resources. The problem, says Zhang, is that China does very little to supervise and limit the negative environmental and social impacts of such projects on host countries. It is not right for China "to benefit" on such a scale "and not take responsibility," says Zhang.
Seeds of Activism and Justice
From her unassuming position as a lecturer in law at the University of Maryland, Zhang may seem like an improbable figure to be at the vanguard of promoting a $2 trillion accountability agenda. On a closer look, however, no one is better suited for this task.
Zhang grew up in the 1970s in the outskirts of Chengdu in China's Sichuan Province. Both of her parents worked for a huge state-owned chemical plant. She and her friends caught crabs and fish in a green rice field near the plant, and she noticed that the factory discharged red polluted water directly into the green field where they played. Even as a little girl, Zhang sensed that something was wrong. "My sense of pollution and the environment started much earlier than most Chinese people," recalls Zhang.
In 1985, while she was in high school, Zhang had her first exposure to the work of an environmental organization. Reading the Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息) newspaper, Zhang learned how Greenpeace had sent its ship the Rainbow Warrior to protest French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and how the French government had planted the bomb which sank the ship. As Zhang recalls, "I was so touched by what Greenpeace was trying to do, so touched." Zhang applied to study law after high school, and was admitted to Wuhan University's Law School in Hubei Province in 1987. It was a direction she pursued without too much thought—"I didn't know much about myself yet," she admits. As it turned out, however, it was an extraordinary moment to be a university student, and especially a law student.
The generation of students that attended university from 1985 through 1989 experienced the most liberal moment in modern Chinese history. Deng Xiaoping had declared the reform and opening up policy in 1978. A decade later, students like Zhang found themselves in university environments full of possibility, questioning, and even soul searching. Intellectuals openly published articles asking why China had gone through the "disaster" of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang and her classmates were inspired to engage with these difficult questions. They also eagerly absorbed many ideas from outside China, and read Western literature on democracy, philosophy, the rule of law, and legal governance. The law school had discussions and debates about the role of government. "It was a very special time," recalls Zhang, "and very different than what students before or after experienced."
The optimism and openness of this time also gave rise to a student movement across China, which was crushed at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Zhang was among many students who had traveled to Beijing from all over China. After that traumatic ending, students returned to their hometowns and quietly went about their lives. Zhang graduated from Wuhan University Law School in 1991, and returned to Chengdu to work as in-house counsel for a state-owned chemical company.
Pioneering Litigation Work in Beijing
In 1997, Zhang moved from Chengdu to Beijing to pursue a Master's in law at the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL). While pursuing her studies, she also became one of the earliest volunteers at the first non-governmental environmental law clinic in China: the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV). After graduation, Zhang became a lawyer for CLAPV, and then its director of litigation.
Her work was groundbreaking. In 2004, she represented a Beijing community that had organized the first ever public hearing under China's then nascent Environmental Impact Assessment Law. In 2005, she represented more than 1,700 villagers in Fujian Province in a successful class action suit against a chemical plant that had discharged toxic substances into a river. It was China's largest ever pollution-related class action suit. International media began to refer to Zhang as the "Erin Brockovich of China." The case was later highlighted by the China Supreme People's Court as a "model case" for environmental protection litigation.
Zhang's work was rewarding, but also risky. The plaintiffs she assisted were powerless, ordinary people, while the defendants were powerful owners of large polluting plants, and they usually had close ties to local governments. In a case in Zhejiang Province, for instance, Zhang had to sneak in to the village at night to obtain testimony and evidence from community members. If she had arrived in the daytime, the local security bureau might have forced her to leave, taken her personal belongings, or even arrested her.
Broader Horizons and International Insights
In 2005, Zhang audited classes at Columbia Law School on a fellowship, where she was exposed to a range of ideas for how NGOs can effectively make use of litigation. In the same year, CLAPV formed a partnership with the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to help build capacity for environmental advocacy in China. Between 2006 and 2008, Zhang arranged meetings with NRDC representatives and Chinese lawyers in major cities like Wuhan, Harbin, Chengdu, and Beijing. She also helped to organize roundtables and invited young lawyers interested in social justice, the rule of law, and defending people’s rights. These lawyers were encouraged to take on environmental cases as well. The political environment in China, recalls Zhang, was "more open and liberal" than what it has become today.
Through her work with NRDC, Zhang learned a lot about U.S. environmental laws, as well as American approaches to NGO management. She also made friends with U.S. lawyers, Environmental Protection Agency officials, and NGO staff, and felt "very inspired by their work." In 2008, Zhang was chosen to be a World Fellow at Yale University, where she was one of 18 mid-career leaders chosen for a semester of academic enrichment and leadership training. The program helped her see her own work and concerns in a much broader context. She gives the example of learning from her World Fellow colleague from Bolivia, Franco Gamboa: "Learning about the political crisis; the drug issue; the failures of the World Bank there—the program really broadened my horizons. We face so many problems as human beings."
After Yale, Zhang returned to China in 2009 to work as deputy China country director of PILnet, a New York-based public interest law organization. She continued her own litigation work, but now also had responsibilities as a program manager, and helped train young lawyers on how to be effective public interest litigators. Zhang also made written submissions and participated in expert dialogues with legislators. Partly thanks to the efforts of Zhang and her colleagues at this time, the National People’s Congress amended the Civil Procedure Law in 2012, and revised the Environmental Protection Law in 2015, thus providing a potential platform for Chinese environmental NGOs to sue polluters.
With the goal of becoming a better NGO manager, Zhang attended the Kennedy School at Harvard University in 2012-2013 for a Master's in Public Administration. She studied organizational leadership, NGO financial management, and strategic management. She also took a course by Professor John Ruggie on business and human rights; the course inspired her to examine Chinese overseas investments from the standpoint of environmental and human rights.
Zhang kept thinking about China's growing influence, its investments abroad, and its stated commitments to both domestic and international norms. She knew that for many Chinese companies, the reality on the ground was different: many would try to "ignore the environment and the local laws." She was especially concerned about how Chinese companies conducted themselves in developing economies: "I knew that many of these companies would try to take advantage of other countries' weak institutions."
In 2016, Zhang won an Open Society Fellowship in Washington, DC. Her research focused on the impacts of Chinese companies on environmental and human rights through case studies from Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia. The objective was to strengthen the capacity of civil society to ensure Chinese overseas companies' compliance with both environmental laws and international human rights treaties which China had signed and ratified. Zhang traveled far and wide for her research, including work in Bosnia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Peru, and eight African countries (Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Tanzania).
In May 2018, Zhang visited Guinea for eight days. China Hongqiao Group, the world's largest aluminum producer, is part of an international consortium to increase bauxite production in Guinea. Zhang traveled to Boké Prefecture, where she met with Chinese managers from Hongqiao Group, and with leaders from 10 villages.
She found a need for improved communication, transparency, and environmental performance on Hongqiao's part, and a corresponding need to improve the capacity of local NGOs to deal with Chinese companies (as distinct from domestic, European, or American companies). She plans to return to Guinea to help advance these priorities.
In July 2018, Zhang provided testimony (amicus curiae) to a local court in Ecuador. The court had shut down a Chinese mining operation in the Cajas Nature Reserve for its failure to consult with indigenous communities. The area is recognized "as a natural biosphere by UNESCO," as a vital source of community drinking water, and as home of the Kañari-Kichwa indigenous communities. The defendant—the local government which had issued the mining license to the Chinese mining company—was keen to get the mine started again, and appealed the decision, even though the mining operations would entail extensive cyanide and arsenic contamination. Indigenous communities had never been consulted about these risks or other vital issues.
In her testimony, Zhang explained that China had ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and had endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and has regulations requiring its enterprises not to violate treaties it has ratified. In addition, such enterprises are bound by the laws and regulations of the host country.
In August 2018, the court accepted indigenous peoples' claims and efforts, and the amicus curiae supporting them, "and upheld revocation of the mining permit."
China Accountability Watch
In November 2018, Zhang established a new organization, China Accountability Watch (CAW), from her base in Washington, DC. CAW, in cooperation with the Transnational Environmental Accountability Project at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, aims to strengthen corporate transparency and legal accountability in China's activities abroad, and to urge the country to fulfill its extraterritorial obligations to protect the environment and human rights. Zhang optimistically contends that seeking information, promoting transparency, and demanding accountability "can help ensure that justice is served—even in the context of authoritarian China and its significant overseas investments."
To advance this ambitious agenda, Zhang will need to draw on all her knowledge and experience, including her track record of courageous advocacy on behalf of ordinary people, and her comfort in navigating both Chinese and international contexts. And crucially, she will do so independent of any business or government agenda: "As a civil society activist and lawyer, I can offer my help to NGOs and lawyers in other countries in their dealings with Chinese enterprises that might cause problems." Still, while Zhang wants to make a major contribution, she fully recognizes that strengthening compliance for almost US$2 trillion in cumulative Chinese foreign direct investment (across 189 countries) cannot depend on civil society efforts alone. China now has only a patchwork of relevant domestic rules and regulations relating to such investments and projects, alongside its stated commitments to international norms. China itself must also step up, says Zhang, and provide effective supervision and enforcement of its environmental and social commitments. China is not where it was 20 or even 10 years ago. The country is already "a major economic power" and has aspirations to be a "global leader." And leadership, says Zhang, "means caring about the interests of the planet."