Chinese Overseas Investment in Cambodia: Conflicts and Solutions

China Development Brief, No.55 (Fall 2012)

中文 English

Cao Ke and Wang Xiaojuan of the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s China office report on the environmental and social conflicts stemming from Chinese overseas investment and provide recommendations on how those conflicts can be ameliorated.

“Cambodia, long shunned by international big business, is keen to benefit from all these new-found opportunities. Contracts are being signed off like autographs and there are concerns for the long-term development of the country. The Chinese have come to the table to play for big stakes and pledged US$ 1.1 billion in assistance in late 2009, considerably more than all other donors put together, and with no burdensome strings attached to promote transparent, rational government management. Beijing preaches a different faith than that of Brussels.

– Lonely Planet Cambodia, 2011

The above text was quoted from p.2 of the Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook section on “Cambodia’s Foreign Investment Situation”.  On that same page there is an even more observant passage: “Cambodia’s unspoiled nature attracts many tourists but many places are being destroyed by the commercial activities of mankind. Ancient forests are being razed to make way for plantations, rivers are being sized up for major hydroelectric power plants and the south coast is being explored by leading oil companies.” The travel guidebook is not the only observer paying attention to China’s role in foreign investment projects in Cambodia. Since 2008, the China offices of the Heinrich Boll Foundation (Heinrich Böll Stiftung) have carried out a series on China’s role in globalization, especially its investment in resource development  projects in Africa and countries in the Mekong River Basin.

From July 2011 to June 2012, as a consultant to the Böll Foundation China Office’s project on “China’s Role in Globalization,” one of the authors of this article, Ke Cao, visited Cambodia for a year of fieldwork. He was dedicated to reducing conflict, promoting mutual understanding, and encouraging constructive dialogue between Chinese overseas enterprises, local people, and local civil society organizations. At the invitation of China Development Brief, he wrote this article sharing his observations, thoughts, and experience over this past year in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s Recurring Foreign Investment Disputes

Cambodia in the second half of the 20th century experienced a long period of turmoil. In 1992, they achieved political reconciliation but not until the late 1990s did the political situation begin to stabilize. However, even today they are still affected by this historical legacy. For example, even around the capital of Phnom Penh, the work of confirming and issuing land deeds has not yet been completed. As one of the “least developed nations” designated by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the 2007 national statistics show that one-third of the Cambodian population lives below the national poverty line of U.S. $0.60 a day. Cambodia is heavily reliant on international aid. In 2010, donor countries pledged $1.1 billion, equal to half of all government expenditures that year. Due to the significant involvement and influence of the international community, a fairly large space is given to Cambodian non-governmental organizations, opposition parties, and the media. Although their real power is debatable, there are a large number of Cambodian NGOs and some of them participate in policy dialogues with the government. The Cambodian government sometimes consults these NGOs on policy formulation and on the execution of certain projects.

One major goal of the Cambodian government is to attract large amounts of foreign investment to spur economic development. They specifically emphasize industries related to resource exploitation such as the development of land for special purposes (such as agricultural plantations), real estate, utilities, mining, and oil and gas. However, most of these types of projects lead to disputes over issues such as the relocation of people, and protection and restoration of the environment. All are subject to disputes.

For local companies, the most common disputes are caused by real estate development and construction of plantations. For foreign companies, the situation they face is perhaps more complicated because laws and regulations are different from their home countries, not to mention the differences in culture, language and society.  Some projects by foreign companies might also involve issues such as geopolitical competition, ethnic strife, and trade protectionism.

In recent years, international organizations and MNCs with high social and environmental standards frequently were caught in a vortex. Even poverty alleviation-oriented, not-for-profit railway construction projects co-sponsored by the Asia Development Bank and the Australian Agency for Overseas Aid faced criticism by NGOs for serious problems in the resettlement process. They were criticized for failing to comply with their own policies while implementing the resettlement.  In 2008, international NGOs exposed a BHP Billiton prospecting project claiming that the project’s “community development fund” was in fact a “tea-drinking fee” given to government officials. This led Australia to carry out an official investigation. In the end, BHP Billiton withdrew from the project.

Chinese Enterprises in Cambodia

Official data from Cambodia shows that from 1994 to July 2011, Chinese investment in Cambodia reached $6.6 billion, while over the same period American investment was $280 million. There is no doubt that China has become Cambodia’s largest provider of bilateral aid for infrastructure projects as well as the largest investor in the country1. Under the BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) model, China has invested $1.5 billion in five major hydropower stations that are currently under construction or already completed. The number of Chinese-funded hydropower projects may continue to grow. The Erdos Group (鄂尔多斯集团), a private company from Inner Mongolia, announced in 2009 it would invest $3 billion in Cambodia over the coming decades, including a real estate development (Wan Valley Lake), power plants and a bauxite project. In addition, the Union Group (优联集团), a private enterprise from Tianjin, has already received a 99-year special use license to develop 41,000 hectares of land in Kong Province, Cambodia for waterfront real estate projects. The Union Group announced that the total investment would be between $3.6 and $5 billion. China’s investments in vulnerable industries such as mining and large-scale agricultural plantations are also growing. Nonetheless, Cambodia’s 2010 gross national product stood at only $14 billion.

Chinese investments are attracting attention not only because of their size, but also because they’ve been implicated in social and environmental disputes.  Some of these projects have created serious social conflicts. As has always been the case both at home and abroad, there are problems with the track record of Chinese companies which have developed a poor reputation on social and environmental issues. Abroad, the words “Chinese enterprises” and “China” are easily linked. Just as the Lonely Planet’s Cambodia Guide says, there’s a general impression that Chinese aid comes with “no strings attached.” This further confounds the above issue. In fact, corporate investment from China has little to do with China’s foreign aid. Although the influence of foreign aid and corporate investment is growing and their channels are diversifying, due to poor communication, many foreigners and international media organizations and NGOs conflate “Chinese enterprises” (both private and state-owned) with the “Chinese government,” and the “Chinese people”.

Perhaps it is easy to see why the Cambodian government welcomes Chinese investment, while the media, local people, and NGOs are suspicious, disgruntled and even hostile.  However, most Chinese enterprises in Cambodia believe that while “[their] environmental impact isn’t the best, it’s certainly not the worst,” and that “foreign parties are paying particular attention to China”.  But from an objective perspective, it is only natural that the biggest kid on the block attracts more attention. Add to that  the past reputation of Chinese firms, and it is clear that the only solution to these problems is greater transparency and improved communication with the media and people.

The Crisis Caused by China’s Investments in Cambodia

The earliest Chinese investment project that concerned NGOs in Cambodia started construction in September 2007. The Kamchay Hydropower Station, a project invested by the  Sinohydro Group Ltd. (中国水利水电建设集团), was the first large-scale hydroelectric project in Cambodia. In 2008, local NGOs conducted a systematic research and advocacy project and afterwards reported the project’s negative environmental and social impacts to local and international media. They noted the environmental and social management measures were opaque, comprehensive environmental assessment reports were not submitted on a timely basis, and so on. Generally, you rarely heard the company issue a  direct response to criticisms voiced by the media and NGOs.

Despite this criticism, the Kamchay Hydropower Station was completed and began operation in December 2011. In contrast, the disturbances caused by the Wan Valley Lake real estate project taught Chinese companies a more profound lesson. In 2007, the Cambodian government signed an agreement with a local company with close government connections to develop 100 hectares in the Wan Valley Lake area into luxury communities. This required the demolition of more than 4,000 homes. Due to Cambodia’s complicated history, some residents had title deeds while others were merely long-term residents. Because of this, it was very difficult for developers and residents to reach an agreement on issues of compensation and resettlement. In one case, the government and developers tried to demolish the houses of a group that refused to relocate. However, this group petitioned, demonstrated, and used other methods to garner support.

In late 2010, the Hongjun (鸿骏公司) subsidiary of the Erdos Group became involved with the Wan Valley Lake real estate projects, and took responsibility for all construction costs in exchange for 50 percent of the shares. They, too, were drawn into this turbulent and difficult situation. Local residents began collectively petitioning the Chinese Embassy, sent an open letter to the Chinese company, and even called for a boycott of Chinese goods. During this period, the Chinese company remained silent. Not until the beginning of 2011 did the Chinese embassy make a statement: “The demolition issue is the sole responsibility of the Cambodian company. The Chinese company has no legal liability there. It is only responsible for the construction work after the demolition work is complete.”

Although the Chinese company tried to make a clear demarcation between its role and the demolition dispute, it is clear that the Chinese company did a poor job at judging the project’s risks and possibility for complications. This issue continued through August 2011, when the World Bank exerted pressure to freeze aid loans to Cambodia. Only then did the local company and government give in to the residents’ demands, and thereby resolved some of the problems.

The Union Group’s real estate tourism project is another project where disputes over resettlement arose, this time involving over 1,000 local residents.  The Tianjin Union Investment and Development Group Ltd (天津优联投资发展集团有限公司), a subsidiary of the Wanlong Group, planned to spend huge sums towards the construction of a tourist resort in Cambodia. However, starting in 2009, due to problems related to compensation and resettlement, residents began to complain, protest, and petition. Local NGOs joined together and carried out two large-scale investigations which the media tracked throughout.

For large-scale projects involving demolition, the following is typical government conduct: money is paid out by the company, and multiple government departments act together to resolve compensation and resettlement issues according to the Asian Development Bank’s specified standards. When the process is government-led and a relatively high amount of compensation is offered, the problems seem to be solved easily and residents are not too dissatisfied. Nevertheless, during the process of demolition and compensation many problems can occur. According to NGO and media reports, those initiating the demolition do not communicate enough with the residents and in fact have used force and intimidation against residents. There are disagreements over land type and compensation calculations. Even worse, the targeted resettlement locations frequently lack standard basic infrastructure and livelihood opportunities.

In this context, even when local governments do lead demolition projects, enterprises should also get involved to actively support the resettlement work and ensure it moves in the right direction.

How to Resolve the Problem?

Under growing encouragement by the Chinese government through the “going out” policy, more and more Chinese companies are investing abroad. From now on, overseas investment projects may have to deal with more non-economic factors. Below are some triggers of problems relating to social and environmental impact management.

First, investment decisions are made without a deep understanding of the local situation and decision-makers may be ignorant of or underestimate the social risks.

Second, often project staff are mostly technical or managerial staff that lack skills in corporate social responsibility. Staff may not care or be familiar with how to carry out compliant investigations of the social and environmental impacts of a project, and  management of the villagers’ livelihood and  environment.

Third, other than communicating with the local government bureaus, Chinese firms are either unfamiliar with or unwilling to communicate with other project stakeholders and in fact they tend to rely on local government departments to solve the problems. Chinese firms generally prefer a low-level of transparency.

Attaching greater emphasis to raising the management standards of social and environmental impact in the field is the only solution to these problems. Increasing transparency and constructive dialogue with villagers and NGOs, and even seeking cooperation with NGOs to reduce the negative impact of the project, are the only ways to carry out community development projects. Most NGOs aim to safeguard the interests of vulnerable groups, not necessarily to oppose investment projects or to intentionally bring trouble to enterprises.

In addition, enterprises should bring in environmental and social management, rural development, and ecological protection professionals to be responsible for this work and ensure compliance with international standards. Although the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other international institutions do not necessarily meet their own social and environmental safeguard policy standards, these standards can provide lessons for Chinese enterprises during their learning period.

What NGOs Should be Aware of During the Problem-solving Process.

At the moment, when resolving problems arising from “development projects,” Cambodian NGOs often rely on direct communication with Cambodian government departments and government mediation, or they go to the media to publicize problems with Chinese enterprises. In fact, the government of Cambodia is often criticized for being too cozy with developers and often finds itself embroiled in conflicts as a result.

NGO’s should also learn how to communicate with enterprises more effectively. The natural goal of a corporation is to seek profit and business people tend to be very pragmatic. “Responsibility,” “obligations,” “the rights of people,” and “image,” are abstract nouns that may be difficult to impress upon businesses. But guarding against environmental and social problems which create risks to the business is not. Therefore, a critical area for NGOs to concentrate on is to develop ways to effectively communicate to companies that popular demands are tied to business risks.

I have participated in the process with all the stakeholders, particularly exchanges on these issues between NGOs and media. To me, it was very obvious that discussions of Chinese enterprises were overly broad and filled with catchphrases such as “Chinese overseas enterprises plunder forest resources in Africa,” “China’s overseas environmental footprint is a serious problem, ” and “local people receive no benefit from these projects,” etc. In fact, each corporation and case differ in the way they deal with the specific issues and their implementation, and corporations themselves find it difficult to define the problems in simple binary “good or bad” terms.

The Essence of the Environmental Problem is the Social Problem

In conversations between the media and NGOs on China’s overseas investment, most concentrate on the “environmental footprint” and “overseas resources grab.” Even so, the environmental issues boil down to social problems. The more pressing and realistic initiatives are to promote the integration of Chinese enterprises with the well-being of local communities, rather than focus solely on figures and slogans.

Within the context of globalization, relying on the Chinese government to manage overseas Chinese enterprises is unrealistic. Also, the “legitimacy” of NGOs depends on whether they represent the public interest, which can be a major negotiating chip when they engage with enterprises. In some situations, when dealing with investment-caused environmental and social conflicts, domestic NGOs play a very positive role. But overall, they are still finding their way and most of the time they are in a weaker or “consultative” status vis-à-vis corporations.  The road to real public participation has yet to be opened.

  1. China’s investment in Cambodia reaches of 8.8 bln USD [EB / OL]. 


曹可 汪晓娟
"柬埔寨远离国际商业圈许久,目前正在积极争取从新的市场机会中获利。商业合同像签名一样被随意签订,人们对这个国家的长远发展前景具有忧虑。中国已经开 始在柬埔寨展示大手笔,在2009年年末宣布援助柬埔寨11亿美元,这笔数目比其它援助国援助的总额还要多,并且没有繁重的附加条款推动透明合理的政府管理。北京与布鲁塞尔鼓吹的理念不同。"
—— 《孤独星球Lonely Planet),柬埔寨旅行指南,2011》
上述文字引自LP这本著名旅行指南书的柬埔寨版引言第二页"关于柬埔寨外国投资的情况",该页还有更为直观的叙述:"柬埔寨原始的自然环境吸引众多游人, 但是许多地方正在受到人类商业活动的破坏。为了给种植园腾出土地,古老的森林被成片砍伐,河流被大型水电站所建水坝截断,国际大型石油公司正在南方的海岸 边勘探油田。"
对柬埔寨外来投资项目和中国在其中扮演角色表示关注的不止一本旅行指南,海因里希·伯尔基金会(Heinrich Böll Stiftung)中国办公室自2008年起即开展了一系列关注中国在全球化过程中的角色、尤其是中国在非洲以及湄公河流域国家的资源开发类投资情况的项 目。
2011年7月至2012年6月,本文作者之一的曹可,以伯尔基金会中国办公室"关注中国在全球化的角色"项目顾问身份,赴柬埔寨实地工作一年,致力于促 进中国海外企业与投资地民众和民间组织在内的各利益相关方的建设性对话,减少冲突并增进理解。应《中国发展简报》约请,本文将分享作者一年来在柬埔寨的观 察与思考。
柬埔寨在20世纪后半叶曾经历过长期动荡,1992年实现政治和解,但直到90年代末政局才开始稳定,然而时至今日仍有众多历史遗留问题。例如,即便在首都金边,地契确认和发放的工作仍没有完成。作为联合国发展署认定的"最不发达国家"之一,2007年全国性统计显示三分之一的柬埔寨人口生活在每天0.6 美金的国家贫困线之下。柬埔寨严重依赖国际援助,2010年,各援助国认捐11亿美金,是当年政府支出的一半。由于国际社会的介入和影响,柬埔寨的非政府 组织、反对派和媒体的空间都比较大。尽管实际力量存在争议,柬埔寨非政府组织数量众多,有些非政府组织可以参加政策层面的对话,柬政府有时也会就政策制定 和具体项目的开展征询非政府组织的意见。
近年来,在社会和环境方面责任标准比较高的国际机构和跨国公司在柬埔寨频频陷入漩涡。尽管以扶贫为主要宗旨而非以投资盈利为目的,亚洲发展银行和澳大利亚 海外发展署联合支持的正在开展的铁路建设项目也被非政府组织批评移民安置问题严重,实施过程不符合自己制定的规章制度。必和必拓在2008年的一个探矿项 目被国际性非政府组织曝光,其声称的"社区发展基金"实际上作为"喝茶费"给了政府官员,遭到澳大利亚官方监管部门调查。最后,必和必拓退出了这个项目。
柬埔寨官方公布的数据表明,自1994年至2011年7月间,柬埔寨从中国获得的投资为66亿美元,而同期美国投资额为2.8亿美元,毫无疑问,中国已经成为在柬埔寨的最大基建项目援助国以及最大的投资国[1]。 中国在柬以BOT(建设—运营—转交)模式投资在建及已建成的大型水电站有五座,总额达15亿美金,未来中资水电站数目可能还会增加。来自内蒙古的民营企业鄂尔多斯集团在2009年宣布将在未来几十年在柬投资30亿美金,包括房地产开发(万谷湖),火电站和铝土矿项目;来自天津的民营企业优联集团已经在柬 埔寨的国公省拿到了41000公顷土地的特许使用权,开发海滨地产项目,特许使用期为99年,优联集团宣布的未来投资总额在36到50亿美元之间。在一些 同样脆弱的行业比如采矿业和大型农业种植园等,中国在柬投资也在日益增长。而2010年柬埔寨的国民生产总值不过是140亿美元。
中国投资受到关注不仅仅由于其巨额资金,也由于其所牵扯的社会与环境争议,其中某些项目已经引发了激烈的社会冲突。一直以来,不论在国内国外,中国企业整体上在社会和环境问题上出现问题较多,形象不佳。在国外,"中国企业"与中国给人的印象容易被联系到一起,如《绝望星球 柬埔寨旅行指南》文章所指,广为人知的"不附带任何条款"的中国对外援助政策,使这些议题的讨论更加复杂。实际上,很多企业的投资跟中国的对外援助没有多少关系。虽然影响越来越大,形式越来越多元,但由于沟通缺乏,在海外民众、媒体及非政府组织眼中,中国的企业(包括民企和国企)、中国政府、中国人等几个 概念容易重叠。
结合以上背景,也许更能理解,在柬政府对中国投资热烈欢迎的同时,而媒体,民众和非政府组织对此怀有疑虑,反感甚至抵触。而中国在柬企业大多认为"中国企业在社会环境影响方面不是最好,也不是最坏","外方尤其关注中国"。客观来说,企业的委屈也有一定缘由,但作为"大鳄",受到关注自然多,加之历史造成 的形象问题,解决之道唯有增进透明度,并与媒体、民众加强沟通交流。
柬埔寨非政府组织最早关注的中国投资项目,是2007年9月动工建设的甘寨水电站,该项目由中国水利水电建设集团投资,是中资企业在柬埔寨的首个大型水电 项目。2008年,当地非政府组织就此项目进行系统的调研和倡导活动,之后柬埔寨当地及国际媒体报道这一项目大多都会提及其负面的环境和社会影响,包括环 境和社会管理措施不透明,未及时提交全面环境评估报告等。相对而言,很少看到企业对媒体和非政府组织批评的正面回应。
虽然遭遇批评,但甘寨水电站已于2011年12月建成投入使用。相形之下,万谷湖地产项目引起的风波给中国企业带来更为深刻的教训。2007年,柬埔寨政 府与当地一家背景深厚的公司签署协议,要将万谷湖周边100多公顷的地方改建为高档社区,同时对湖边4000多户居民实行拆迁。由于柬埔寨复杂的历史背景,有些居民有地契,有些则只是长期居住,因此关于拆迁安置和赔偿问题,开发商与居民始终难以达成协议。政府与开发商一度试图强拆部分拒绝搬迁居民的房 屋,而居民则以请愿、示威等方式争取支持。
2010年末,附属鄂尔多斯集团的鸿骏公司加入万谷湖地产项目,负责全部建设成本并获得50%股份,由此卷入这一漩涡。当地居民开始集体向中国大使馆请 愿,向中资企业发公开信,甚至呼吁抵制中国货物。在此期间,中资企业始终沉默,直至2011年初才由中国大使馆表态:拆迁问题由柬方公司全权负责,中资公 司没有相关法律责任,只负责拆迁完成后的建设工作。
尽管中资企业试图与拆迁争议划清界限,却也可以看出,中资企业对项目风险和可能遭遇的困难预计不足,从而使自己卷入有争议的国际事件,危机出现后的应急处 理也不是很积极。此风波一直持续到2011年8月,世界银行以冻结对柬埔寨援助贷款施压,才促使柬埔寨政府和开发商对居民做出让步,使问题部分得以解决。
优联地产旅游项目是另一个移民拆迁安置矛盾问题突出的项目,牵扯到当地1000多名居民。万隆集团旗下天津优联投资发展集团有限公司斥巨资在柬埔寨建设旅 游度假项目,然而由于赔偿和安置问题,居民从2009年即开始上访、抗议、请愿。当地非政府组织联合开展了两次大范围调查行动,媒体也始终追踪事态进展。
对于涉及拆迁的大型项目,柬埔寨政府一般处理模式为:企业出钱,政府多部门联动解决赔偿和安置问题,具体参照亚洲发展银行标准。看起来,有政府主导,赔偿 标准相对较高,问题似乎容易解决,居民也不会有太多不满。然而,拆迁和补偿的过程往往问题众多。据非政府组织报告和媒体报道称,拆迁方常常缺乏与居民的沟 通,有强拆及恐吓居民现象;土地类型和赔偿额度的计算有纠纷;更糟糕的是移民安置点往往基础设施不达标,并缺乏对居民生计的支持和帮扶。
这些问题只能通过重视并提高在社会和环境影响方面的实地管理水平来解决。解决途径之一是企业增强透明度,与村民和非政府组织进行建设性沟通,甚至寻求与非 政府组织合作,减少项目负面影响、开展社区发展等项目。非政府组织的宗旨大多是维护弱势群体的利益,这并不等同于反对投资项目或故意给企业找麻烦。
此外,企业应当加强引入环境和社会管理、农村发展、生态保护的专业人员,做到有专人专才负责相关事务,并尽力向国际标准看齐。虽然世界银行、亚洲发展银行 等国际机构也不见得事事都能够达到其设定的"社会和环境保障政策"标准,但这些标准可为处于学习期的中资企业提供借鉴。
如何有效的与企业沟通也是非政府组织应当补上的一堂课。企业的天然目的即是盈利,商人们往往非常务实。对"责任"、"义务"、"民众权益"、"形象"等抽 象的名词泛泛而谈可能很难打动企业和商人,但针对对防范环境和社会问题引发的商业风险的考量则大不一样。因此,如何在与企业的沟通过程中将民众的诉求有效 地和企业的经营风险相结合是非政府组织应当努力的关键方向。
在笔者参与的各方尤其是非政府组织和媒体交流相关议题过程中,很明显的感觉到与会者针对中资企业的讨论过于泛泛和标签化,如"中国海外企业掠夺非洲森林资 源","中国海外环境足迹问题严重","民众在这些项目中得不到任何利益"等。实际上,每个企业和案例在具体问题和实施上都有所不同,而企业自身很难以简单二元的方式界定好坏。
在全球化背景下,依赖中国政府管控境外中资企业并不现实,而能与之对话的非政府组织的"合法性"取决于其是否代表公众利益,这也是其能够与企业谈判对话的 主要筹码。囿于形势,针对投资引发的环境和社会议题,国内民间组织虽有一些亮点出现,但总体仍在摸索中前行,大多数时候仍处于弱势或"协商"地位,真正的 公共参与道路仍未打开。
(曹可系伯尔基金会中国合作办公室环境项目经理,联系: ;汪晓娟系伯尔基金会中国合作办公室环境全球化项目经理,联系:

Cao Ke, is the Environmental Project Manager in the China office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, contact:  Wang Xiaojuan is the Environmental Globalization Project Manager in the same office, contact:

Translated by Brian Withall

Reviewed by Charlie Vest

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