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Road Work Ahead: Human Costs of China's Belt and Road Initiative

Beyond the Silk Road

From world leaders to high school debaters, many have lauded China’s Belt and Road Initiative as an unparalleled economic machine for integrating global investments and connecting infrastructural developments. Chinese President Xi Jinping first proposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a robust global infrastructure program, in a series of 2013 speeches.

Reminiscing on the Silk Road, Xi outlined the goals of a new Silk Road Economic Belt, combining the innovations of modernity with the Silk Road’s legacy of economic exploration and unity. Xi proposed five objectives for the Belt and Road Initiative: multilateral policy communication, improvements in infrastructural connectivity, unimpeded Eurasian trade, enhanced financial integration, and human connection.

Nine years later, the BRI encapsulates 147 countries, ranging from Eritrea to Italy. Since Xi’s proposal, Chinese state-owned enterprises have undertaken over 3,000 projects across the globe, generating railways, ports, rural roads, solar power plants, airports, technical institutes, and more. The Belt and Road Initiative presents a dual success story in influence and economics. China has strengthened its international partnerships, while producing an impressive portfolio containing BRI assets with a total value of more than $4 trillion USD. Considering that Western economic powers have only recently announced a $600 billion USD global infrastructure program striving to rival the BRI in political influence and investment breadth, the Belt and Road Initiative remains an unprecedented victory in financial and infrastructural spheres. Riding the waves of the BRI’s triumphs, the chairman of the Belt and Road Institute in Sweden recently praised the Initiative as “a pathway to a bright future for mankind.

Humanitarian Implications

Yet, the Belt and Road Initiative’s dominant narrative of success pales in light of those whose futures have been razed by the BRI’s path. Between 2013 and 2020, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), a research organization focusing on the intersection of economic activity and human rights, reported 679 human rights abuse allegations connected to China’s global investment and business activities, shedding light on the true nature of Belt and Road Initiative projects. Many reported human rights abuse allegations related to the BRI have impacted marginalized communities, especially in countries with weak government presence due to poverty, corruption, domestic upheaval, political instability, or other factors. In such countries, BRI projects receive less oversight and regulations while retaining a shield against accountability in the form of Chinese investments necessary for economic development. Furthermore, China’s economic sway and resources enable the BRI to entrap recipient countries in debt. While China leads the funding of BRI ventures, economically-disadvantaged recipient countries cannot afford remaining costs, allowing China to bestow strategic loans. These maneuvers have alarmed the international community, prompting the International Monetary Fund to warn of “unsustainable debt levels, predatory lending, and lack of project transparency.” For instance, a BRI high-speed railway in Laos will cost nearly half the Laotian GDP, illustrating such accusations of economic exploitation.

Considering the power dynamics between China and BRI partner countries with debt distress, human rights abuse allegations remain underreported in order to minimize financial consequences and political retribution. Yet, the BHRRC report paints a landscape of lost livelihoods, environmental contamination, violence, and more. The majority of alleged abuses occurred in activities related to metal and mining, fossil fuels, and construction due to high profit yields and loose regulations. Humanitarian worries for the BRI range across five continents, countless industries, and the future of global development endeavors. This is a glimpse of the dissipated illusions of the Belt and Road Initiative.


Upheaval has raged throughout Myanmar since the February 2021 coup when military leaders rapidly detained the civilian leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, and deposed politicians across parties. The military’s merciless crackdown on its opponents has resulted in an unprecedented civilian death toll of 1,500 as well as over 8,000 arrests, of journalists, medical workers, protesters, and politicians. The ruling military junta’s “reign of terror” has enabled an influx of elt and Road Initiative project implementations to offset economic losses wrought by a lack of global trading partners due to the junta’s repressive regime. Myanmar’s former government, the NLD, pushed against BRI implementation due to stringent commercial, social, and environmental review processes, much to President Xi’s consternation. Now, with the NLD deposed, BRI infrastructure projects, such as a natural gas power plant and the deep-Sea Port, have progressed with alarming consequences. The BHRRC report found that the highest number of reported human rights abuses by China (97 allegations) occured in Myanmar, specifically in relation to labor and construction practices. Yet, this report predates the coup and the military junta’s mass implementation of BRI projects. If an abundance of alleged human rights abuses occurred during a period of NLD oversight and review without project implementation, Myanmar’s escalation of civil strife alongside heightened Chinese BRI activity necessitates “robust human rights due diligence to ensure commitment to international standards on human rights and responsible business conduct.”

However, such goals of oversight remain limited in their viability when the military junta has prioritized the BRI by stealth due to increasing humanitarian concern as well as intense anti-China sentiment in Myanmar. Since the coup, The Myanmar Investment Commission has stopped making the country’s investment approval list public, shielding the military from due diligence and transparency. As China exerts enormous economic influence, Myanmar’s military government will support risky BRI projects, such as the New Yangon City, with dangers of corruption, environmental damage, weakened labor protections, and more. Without transparency or accountability, the Belt and Road Initiative will transform Myanmar’s already troubling human rights landscape into a devastating conquest.


In spite of Western accusations of driving climate change, China has led many BRI projects focusing on renewable energy infrastructure on the global scale, such as solar energy plants in the UAE and wind turbines in Pakistan.

Yet, this same standard of sustainability remains absent for human rights. When former Brazilian President Evo Morales shared his ambition to develop Bolivia as the “energy heart of South America,” the idea of Chinese BRI investments in six hydroelectric power projects proposed an expanded clean energy supply alongside an economic boost. Nearly seven years later, only two of the BRI projects have been completed, with the other four locked in a standstill. This chasm between ambition and progress illustrates economic doubt in the replicability of the BRI.

Even with this slow rate of implementation and focus on clean energy, these six BRI projects have had decimating consequences. In a 2018 speech, Bolivian activist Ruth Alipaz Cuqui, a member of the indigenious Uchupiamona nation, asserted that, “In Bolivia, a plan for the extinction of indigenous peoples is under way through hydroelectric megaprojects promoted by the Bolivian Government in the Amazon.” Alipaz Cuqui’s choice to use the word ‘extinction’ reveals the dire impacts of BRI projects despite infrastructural development and sustainability promises. She warned that the hydroelectric dams Chepete and El Bala will threaten biodiversity as well as displace over 5,000 indigenious people that live in the affected territories. The BRI’s promises come at the cost of indigenous rights and environmental preservation; however, current Bolivian President Luis Acre has proven willing to pay such a high price by recently reviving such BRI projects that threaten mass displacement and environmental impact.

The two completed BRI Bolivian hydroelectric projects, San Jose I & II Hydroelectric Power Plants, predict a troubling future. A January 2016 halt in construction due to a workers’ strike revealed that half of the Bolivian employees were appealing for compliance of both Bolivian and international labor laws and an end to workplace discrimination. Harrowing anonymous employee testimonies to local news outlets revealed precariously constructed dormitories with rat infestations and violent industrial incidents due to a lack of safety and proper training. Moreover, when then-President Morales visited the site, the employees reported that they were unable to speak to Morales as they had been transported in dump trucks to remote areas. These accounts are not unique to the region; employees at BRI projects in Ecuador reported similar mistreatment and dangerous conditions. Despite the San Jose I & II Hydroelectric Power Plants’ achievements in clean energy, both facilities produced mass deforestation near vital aquatic systems, threatening ecosystems as well as the nearby Carrasco National Park. As BRI clean energy projects continue to gain traction, lessons must be learned from the Bolivian BRI projects in hydroelectric power.


Red roofs of a once-lively village peak through the waters of Mekong River tributaries in northeastern Cambodia. Now, communities with generational ties to the land, such as the Bunong and Kachok indigenous peoples, remain permanently separated from their submerged homes. The culprit of such a dramatic change is none other than the Lower Sesan 2 dam, a monumental BRI project consisting of 7 years of construction and nearly $800 million USD.

One of Asia’s largest dams, the Lower Sesan 2 dam presents both success and failure. While the role of the $800 million USD dam showcases the economic and infrastructural ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative’s development goals, the Human Rights Watch recently labeled the dam “a human rights disaster,” entailing economic, social, and cultural rights violations. Since the dam’s construction in 2011, company executives and government leaders have remained fully committed to the project at the cost of enforcing a dismissal of indigenous and environmental concerns through threats and imprisonment. With coercion of locals and improper consultations with community leaders, Lower Sesan 2 dam officials displaced nearly 5,000 people. At resettlement sites, displaced groups encounter poor housing, a lack of safe drinking water, and decreased agricultural yields, all without sufficient compensation for the loss of their former life. The Lower Sesan 2 dam has taken property, income, and priceless indigenous culture and livelihood. Affected communities farther upstream and downstream have received no support from officials, and villagers who moved to nearby areas instead of accepting resettlement have been met with retaliation by local authorities. Beyond the affected area, tens of millions of people across the region face the impacts of alarming decreases in crucial fishery yields caused by disruptions from the Lower Sesan 2 dam. The Belt and Road Initiative’s promises of success have morphed into mass desolation for marginalized communities.

Future Paths for the Belt and Road Initiative

Just as the Belt and Road Initiative has shifted towards sustainable development by avoiding coal projects and pushing for clean energy innovation, it can also shift towards improvements in labor practices, environmental impacts, and human dignity. The Chinese government and partnering businesses can install more rigorous oversight mechanisms to ensure compliance with domestic labor and wage standards, enhancing transparency. Furthermore, complaint and abuse reporting protocols can be strengthened such that the voices of employees and affected communities are highlighted and given responses. With stronger reporting and improved relationships with unions, Chinese businesses partnering with governments across the world can bolster the accountability of the Belt and Road Initiative. Additionally, BRI officials should prioritize diligent environmental impact reviews of upcoming projects in order to minimize ecosystem harm, protect biodiversity, and preserve cultural connections. Finally, China and local government partners can address the harmful effects of current BRI projects via environmental recovery and improved support and reparations for affected communities. Additionally, BRI partner countries can push for BRI reforms and human rights protection. For instance, the Laotian government indefinitely suspended a Chinese-financed tourism development project in response to citizens’ fears of displacement. By making a concerted effort to prioritize human rights, China can achieve its aspirations to solidify its image as a responsible economic power on the global stage.

Meanwhile, as the Biden administration launches an international infrastructure campaign to rival the BRI, the United States and its G7 partners must strive to meet promises of responsible investment. Not only should the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment learn from the human rights infringements of the BRI, but also take into consideration the financing countries’ positions of privilege and economic influence. Furthermore, economic leaders such as the United States must confront their own histories of economic exploitation in the name of development when financing infrastructure projects which can forever alter the lives of affected communities. As China and the United States continue to spar through international influence, human rights protection must be incorporated into the intersection of development, economics, and geopolitics.

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