China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Over the past decade, Chinese enterprises and policy banks have driven a global resurgence in large dam construction. Yet China is not only building large hydropower; it is also the world leader in small hydropower (SHP). SHP was long used for rural electrification in China, and is now the country’s most widespread renewable energy source. Indeed, China’s leaders promote SHP internationally as a model of green development, part of the government’s attempt to “green” its global image and address environmental concerns associated with the BRI.
In this paper, I analyze how the “green” discourse of projects like SHP meets with the realities of infrastructure investment on the Belt and Road. I draw on interviews from two sites (and stages) of project development: Chinese SHP training workshops for foreign officials and engineers in Hangzhou, and project scoping and negotiations in Laos and Myanmar. Interviews reveal that the types of “green” SHP projects discussed in training programs have little commercial viability in BRI countries. For investors, SHP projects can only obtain finance and earn profit if they are grid-connected and have a guaranteed consumer base – conditions that are difficult to meet. For host country governments, SHP’s role in rural electrification and environmental protection is often less important than national energy security. As a result, few proposed SHP projects are actually built, and those that are can have social and ecological impacts that resemble large dams. This paper thus highlights the challenges for “green” investments in BRI countries where traditional infrastructure dominates.