Entering Laos

Laos is the “most-likely case”, methodologically speaking, to leam from the Chinese experience and provide opportunities for Chinese groups to play a part in Siuo-Laos relations. It shares a border, ideology, political configuration and even developmental trajectory with China. China’s economic and military assistance to Laos dates back to the 1960s, and the relationship between these two countries has been, by and large, stable.64 Laos started its market-oriented reforms in 1986 after its own struggle with reform of socialism, only eight years after Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening-Up Policy in China. The affinity between China and Laos is even enshrined in the institutional configuration, as the Laotian state has developed a special institutional channel for overseas development assistance from China, which is not the case for Laos’s other donors.65 The friendship between China and Laos makes Laos the most willing country to leam from the Chinese experience. The eagerness of the Laotian government to be inspired by China is eloquently articulated by the national technical advisor of foreign aid in Laos:

One thing from my research and my work experience with the Ministry of Planning and Investment is that the Government of Laos wants to leam from China how to be a one-party state that manages the market-oriented economy. Whether it is successfiil or not is something else. What the government (of Laos) wants to prove to the world is that you do not need a multi-party country to manage its economy. The Lao government is strongly committed to managing a one-party state and meanwhile opening its economy. The government believes that Laos is a small country and it does not need a multi-party system. Look at China, with billions of people it can still manage.66

Following the inverse Sinatra inference,67 failure of public interest groups in exerting influence on environmental foreign relations generates challenges faced by a larger sample.

The objective of the GEFs operations in Laos is to bring sustainability to Chinese foreign aid programmes. Conventionally, China’s foreign aid has been geared towards economic infrastructure, industrial development and energy and resource exploitation.68 The agency tasked with foreign aid proposal approval, monitoring of the bidding process and management of implementation is the Ministiy of Commerce (MOFCOM). It also drafts foreign aid policies, guided by the principle of “mutual benefit”, a euphemism for the motivation to increase the competitiveness of Chinese companies in the overseas market.69 Despite MOFCOM’s universal authority in foreign aid decisions, the founder of the GEI identified that the question of reconciling economic development and environmental protection was not yet included in the pattern and decision-making of Chinese foreign assistance. The absence of “sustainability” in the Chinese foreign aid apparams provided opportunities for the GEI to wield its interpretive power by acquainting the MOFCOM with the new value of sustainability.

It is in this context that the GEI initiated the Lao-Cliiua Land Project,70 which spanned 2008 to 2009. The GEI applied for foreign aid from China’s Ministry of Commerce to improve governance capacity of the newly founded Laotian environmental agency, the National Laud Management Authority (NLMA). The proposed land project had four goals and entailed both cross-institution and trans- border experience sharing. Fust, the project aimed to “encourage positive change in China’s overseas aid” by interweaving NGO innovative ideas into bureaucratic thought. Second, the GEI volunteered to draft a regulatory framework to facilitate the state’s control over Chinese enterprises that invest overseas. Through this dual-level institutional cooperation, the GEI lent experience and expertise to the state. The third and fourth goals revolved directly around exporting Chinese experiences across the border to improve the governing capacity of the young NLMA and to help information collection and disclosure.71 The four objectives outlined in the GEI’s proposal were derived from the GEI’s assumption that it had the capacity to increase the legitimacy of Chinese foreign aid (symbolic power) by projecting the country’s image to the international community more in line with shared values such as sustainable development (interpretive power).

The core of the Cliina-Lao Land Project is an information centre that gathers data on land use and natural resources in Laos, which the GEI saw as the fust step towards sustainable development in the country. The information centre, which was the flagship of the proposed project, was modelled upon the Sino- Japan Friendship Environmental Protection Centre. Under the auspices of Japan’s Official Development Aid, the Sino-Japan Friendship Centre has provided environmental infrastructure and know-how to the Chinese government since its completion in 1996. The building symbolises Japan’s long-lasting influence on environmental governance in China and sheds a positive light on Sino-Japan relations. The GEI identified that a project such as the information centre would create an environmentally friendly image for China’s overseas development interventions.

Cross-border experience sharing, in this case, contains the transformation of the Japanese model into Chinese experience, which consequently endows the GEI with interpretive power. A vital reason the GEI opted for an information centre was that a member of its staff was personally involved in the build-up of the Sino-Japan Centre.72 His personal experience was not only important in terms of knowing how to set up an information centre but also in how to adapt the Japanese project to less developed countries such as China and Laos. The director of the GEI hence appointed him to manage the Lao-Cliiua Land Project.73

The GEI’s proposal and approach were welcomed by China’s Foreign Service. The then-Cliinese Ambassador to Laos and the commercial attache endorsed the project and commended the GEI’s innovative practices.74 Indeed, this overseas taskforce signed off on the GEI’s proposal as part of the official procedure of foreign aid approval, with the MOFCOM making the final decision.75 The approval from the Embassy was a recognition of the GEI’s symbolic power, as it indicated the necessity of revamping the country’s image. Yet, contrary to the Embassy’s sympathy towards the GEI’s interpretation of “Chinese experience”, officers hi the MOFCOM re-oriented the proposal towards then own expertise. The MOFCOM’s unwillingness to “poach” novel ideas from NGOs was evident in its feedback on the original proposal. MOFCOM officials criticised it for its lack of consideration of economic profitability and for not fully reflecting the principle of “mutual benefit” of foreign aid. GEI staff were asked by MOFCOM officials to revise their proposal to pinpoint how this project could concretely benefit Chinese companies’ overseas business operations, sidelining the original focus on sustainability. The MOFCOM even changed the title of the project from “The Lao-China Centre for Sustainable Land and Naniral Resources Management” to “Sustainable Utilisation and Market-Oriented Management of National Land Resources in Laos”. This change showcased the fragility of symbolic power vis-a-vis the MOFCOM's institutional power.

Commensurate with the title change was the new focus on establishing a market. which facilitated Chinese companies’ purchase of land in Laos. In other words, the Chinese experience of environmental governance, which was exemplified by the information centre suggested by the GEI, was re-interpreted and re-written by the MOFCOM as a Chinese experience of using foreign aid projects to open foreign markets for Chinese companies.

The interpretive power of the GEI was further undermined in terms of capacity building. The GEI and MOFCOM both agreed on the necessity to improve the governing capacity of the NLMA. In fact, capacity building was the only segment of the proposal which received the MOFCOM’s financial support. However, the MOFCOM and GEI diverged in then perception of what capacity building entailed. Whereas the MOFCOM preferred to invite Laotian officials to a workshop taught by its in-house aid agency, the Academy for International Business Officials,76 the GEI pursued a more comprehensive form of capacity building which was grounded in the concrete needs of Laos communicated to them by the Laos land authority officials, one that reconciled economic growth with environmental protection. The GEI, therefore, failed to bring a new mentality to the Chinese bureaucrats to include sustainability hi foreign aid practices. Indeed, competing projects that won the MOFCOM’s financial support were those focusing on economic and industrial infrastructure, reinforcing the previous patterns of foreign aid.77

The China-Lao Land Project represented failed cross-institutional experience sharing between anNGO and a Chinese state agency, as well as a discounted trans- border cooperation between China and Laos. However, it is clear that the main problem was not the destination country. In fact, the Laotian national technical adviser voiced keen interest in understanding and learning “how the Communist Party in China managed to maintain a one-party system and achieve sustainable development”.78 Ironically, the biggest obstacle to the sharing of Chinese experience was a Chinese government instihition which was reluctant to allow the dissemination of its own methods because they were proposed by an NGO. The former director of the NLMA of Laos, who expressed his enthusiasm for the GEI proposal, expressed with powerlessness that the Laotian government did not have the final say in what happened in its own country.79

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