‘China’s Erin Brockovich’ goes global to hold Chinese companies accountable

Two people are shown in the distance standing on a brown dirt and rock ledge.

A longer version of this story was originally published by InsideClimate News.

The forests of northwest Guinea are scarred by rust-red earth—a product of the West African country’s recent bauxite mining boom. Even amidst COVID-19, the mining continues.

River barges laden with ore snake from the city of Boke toward a port where cargo ships carry the mineral to China. There it is refined into the aluminum used in everything from airplanes to soda cans.  

Two years ago, people living near the mines in Boke began encountering a curious sight: A diminutive Chinese lawyer holding community meetings in their villages. Zhang Jingjing had traveled alone to Guinea to help communities fight the environmental and social impacts of a new Chinese mining consortium operating in the region.

On that first trip to Africa, she said, lawyers in the countries she visited asked her, “Why did you come here to help us against your home country?”

Zhang — who considers herself a global citizen — said that she replied, “I’m not against my country. I am against polluters.”

Wherever Chinese companies go, Zhang follows. She has been to more than 20 countries just since 2015, seeking always to help clean up or shut down Chinese-owned mines, power plants and other massive industrial development projects.

“The ultimate goal is to help the community get justice and to improve the country’s rule of law. That has been my goal from China to Guinea and Ghana,” she said. “I always believe in the law.”

With the coronavirus affecting countries around the world, the pace of Zhang’s travels — and of Chinese overseas development — has slowed. But Zhang, who seems naturally caffeinated, is already adapting her strategy to the times. Since she can’t meet with African activists in person due to the pandemic, she plans to arm their resistance through online courses about Chinese laws and business practices.  

“NGOs have no information about Chinese companies. So that is why Jingjing is very important for us,” said Pascal Tenguiano, who has collaborated with Zhang in his role as the director of CECIDE, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works on mining issues in Guinea.

The language barrier alone is a challenge for organizations like Tenguiano’s, but they find Chinese business practices to be just as cryptic. China is the largest public financier of coal-power development globally, and Chinese companies often dominate natural resource extraction in developing countries.

Unlike the World Bank and other international lenders, China’s main overseas development banks do not require the projects they fund to meet an independent set of social and environmental standards, just local laws. And those are not always enforced in countries with weak legal systems. Unless they’re prodded to do so, Chinese companies often do not consult the local communities affected by their projects.

“I think that Chinese companies are really different from other companies,” said Mamady Koivogui, the director of the Association for Mines without Poverty, another NGO focused on mining issues in Guinea.  “They are not so respectful to the human rights and environmental issues.”

Several people are shown sitting in green plastic chairs under a tree.
Zhang Jingjing meets with community members in Boke, Guinea, in June 2019.Courtesy Zhang Jingjing

While China has been a major player globally in environmentally destructive industries like mining and logging for more than a generation, local NGOs still struggle to find a foothold to engage them. “We are not against the Chinese or Chinese companies, they are welcome, but if they are welcome, they have to respect our laws,” said Tenguiano.

That is where Zhang comes in. Before she went global, Zhang built her career taking polluters to court in her native China, where she earned the moniker “China’s Erin Brockovich” from international media. Growing up in China’s western Sichuan province in the 1980s, her parents worked at a state-owned chemical company. “I saw the discharged yellow and orange air from the factory,” she said, “I saw the water that came from the factory to the rice fields.”  

As a young lawyer she briefly worked for the same chemical company that employed her parents before changing sides. In high school, a news article detailing the bombing of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior ship before an anti-nuclear testing protest in the South Pacific had planted the idea of environmental advocacy in her mind.

In 1999, she joined the newly founded Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), China’s first nongovernmental environmental law clinic. She won a class-action lawsuit involving over 1,700 plaintiffs against a chemical company for water pollution in Fujian province.

Her work in China wasn’t without risk. “At times she has had to deal with threats, mainly from local officials,” said Robert Percival, the director of the Environmental Law Program at the University of Maryland, where Zhang is a lecturer.  

Her global work sprang from a 2016 fellowship at the Open Society Foundations in Washington, DC. As Chinese companies expanded their business overseas, Zhang began to field requests from lawyers around the world for help. “It suddenly dawned on her — some of these were the same companies generating the same types of pollution that she had been litigating over in China,” Percival said.

Around 2018, Zhang decided to form a new non-profit, the China Accountability Project, to pursue this work. The non-profit seeks to increase transparency around Chinese companies’ overseas operations and demand accountability for their human rights and environmental violations, according to Zhang.

After years of travel to assist with cases around the world, she scored a major victory in 2018, helping to halt a silver and gold mining project in Ecuador. A Chinese company planned to mine within a nature reserve high in the Andes, but cyanide pollution from the mine could have contaminated water and soil in the area, which is home to indigenous communities.

Local groups sued to try to stop the project, and a judge in Cuenca, Ecuador revoked the company’s permit due to its failure to obtain consent from the affected indigenous communities, as required under Ecuadorian law. Zhang delivered an amicus brief in the case, explaining China’s commitments under international law to consult indigenous people before development.

When countries have strong legal systems, as in Ecuador, success is more likely, Zhang said. But she is also trying to support communities in countries where the rule of law is weaker.

Before COVID-19 became a pandemic, she was preparing for her sixth trip to Guinea. The country, which has about one-third of the world’s bauxite reserves, is now China’s top source of the mineral. With the arrival of Chinese companies, the region has experienced environmental damage and, at times, civil strife.

During her trips to Guinea, Zhang stays in Boke, population 60,000. Her hotel’s electricity, along with the rest of the city’s, shuts off during the day to conserve power. “It was beyond my imagination about what poor is,” Zhang recalls, thinking about the time she first visited.

By now she is well accustomed to Boke and its surroundings. During her trips, Zhang spends her days visiting local communities to hear their complaints and lend her insights on Chinese companies.

Chief among the complaints are those involving the mines’ impact on the local water supply. In one village whose spring has stopped flowing, Zhang took the 20-minute walk through the woods to the new borehole villagers have to use to get water. It was nearly impossible, she said, to walk the trail in the deep mud of the wet season.

In the dry season, she has seen the red dust clouds kicked up by the mining trucks as they drive to the port. The dust stunts the growth of the mango and cashew trees that are grown as crops in the region.

“Hundreds and hundreds of trucks are moving every day,” said Mamady Koivogui, who has traveled with Zhang during her trips.

One of the main companies behind the recent transformation of the region is SMB-Winning Consortium. The Chinese-Singaporean company began mining bauxite in the region in 2015 and is now Guinea’s largest bauxite miner.

“They didn’t take care of the community development,” Zhang said. “They didn’t take care of the environment.”

SMB-Winning did not respond to a request for comment via email. The company says on its website that it studied the social and environmental impacts of its operations before it began mining. Tenguiano said the company did not do so.

 In 2017, protesters blocked roads in Boke in opposition to the mines’ impacts.  

As the company grows its mining footprint, including building a refinery and attached power plant, Zhang hopes to help local NGOs use legal tools to challenge the quality of their new environmental and social impact assessments. “I don’t think they can stop the project,” she said, “but at least they can delay the project and buy some time to get better compensation, or a better price for the land, and get jobs.”

SMB-Winning says it will conduct environmental assessments for its expansion and that it aims to meet World Bank project standards.

Zhang’s role is not to simply impose a case on a community, but to support the work of local groups, she said. “I think the best way is to respect the local NGOs—their ways,” she said. “My work, I think, is to complement their work and use my expertise on Chinese law to help them. I’m not the main player there—they are.”

Zhang’s focus on building local capacity to engage with Chinese companies is unique, according to Tina Huang, a researcher who works for the China Accountability Project. “It’s really pioneering work. I don’t think other people are doing that.”

The pandemic has Zhang homebound in Maryland for now, with her American husband and two young children. Now that she lives in the US, she worries that her advocacy may be misinterpreted as representing American interests versus China’s.

“I want to challenge corporate power,” she said. “It’s not about China as a country, it’s about challenging individual companies for their wrongdoings — their bad behavior and their violations.”

Zhang is already contemplating her next campaign after borders reopen. This time, she is hoping to bring a case from overseas back to China. In December, the China People’s Supreme Court issued an opinion implying that the domestic court system would consider hearing foreign environmental cases involving Chinese companies. Coming seven years after President Xi Jinping’s ongoing “Belt and Road Initiative” made overseas industrial projects central to Chinese economic and political strategy, the court’s decision took Zhang by surprise.

While it remains to be seen whether the court will actually accept a foreign environmental case, she is eager to test its invitation. “It is a good signal to see that the Supreme Court has noticed the issue of environmental damage and conflict around the Belt and Road Initiative,” she says.

Now she is considering which of the legal conflicts she’s involved in around the world would be the best case to pursue in China. Even from home in Maryland, her wheels are already spinning: “I’m thinking the Guinea case could be one.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.