China in the world

IIED’s 'China in the world' programme of work focuses on the sustainable development challenges and opportunities of its overseas aid, trade and investments.

Article, 01 August 2019
Three men look out over a pond

Chinese aid workers and farmers look over a Chinese aquaculture demonstration pond in Malawi (Photo: Lila Buckley/IIED)

Analysts often view China’s role through a false binary choice: between China “buying into the Western-led world order or trying to overthrow it by waging war”. Instead, China appears to be forging a set of alternative rules and institutions informed by Chinese ideas of development and sustainability.

The Chinese vision of ecological civilisation aims to promote an economic strategy based on ecological upgrading and inclusive development, while the highly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is pushing a wave of state-backed and private financing for infrastructure projects deep into the lands and rural communities of developing countries.  

Both initiatives could have profound effects on global climate and biodiversity. China’s growing focus on global governance presents both challenges and opportunities, particularly as societies and governments in Europe and North America increasingly fracture and look inward.

What is IIED doing?

IIED has pursued a China objective in its strategy over the past decade. Our current 'China in the world' programme of work focuses on the sustainable development challenges and opportunities of China’s overseas aid, trade and investments.

Specifically, the institute is working to improve the impacts of Chinese-linked activities on communities in Africa; building on research highlighting the role of Chinese actors in supply chains in different commodities, and on artisanal and small-scale mining and fisheries in Africa; and identifying leverage points within the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa.

This includes:

  • Engaging with lending patterns in China and beyond to promote a greener and more accountable financial system in China and its multilateral lending bodies
  • Engaging with the actors in particular locations with Chinese investment, especially in Africa
  • Supporting recipient governments and civil society, especially in Africa, to develop strategies for engaging Chinese government and private actors in local development visions and priorities, and 
  • Ensuring opening of space for women in BRI countries and consideration of gender issues in BRI projects. 

Key forums for this work include negotiation spaces established around investment frameworks in China and in African countries. IIED and partners have also helped create associations of enterprise, such as the Chinese timbers traders in Cameroon and the artisanal loggers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The China-Africa Forest Governance Platform, which IIED established with partners, has become recognised as the go-to dialogue forum on forest issues linked to Chinese investments in Africa.

UN agency processes aiming to ‘green the Belt and Road Initiative’ are gaining momentum. Forums in which the policies and practices of banks are scrutinised provide spaces for engagement – such as the Export Import Bank of China, China Development Bank, Bank of China, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, as well as the sovereign wealth fund, the Silk Road Fund, and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank which make BRI investments, mostly in the form of interest-bearing loans.


Towards legal and sustainable investments by China in Africa’s forests, Seth Cook, Xiaoxue Weng, Ming Li, Jie Chen, Bin Xu, Yong Chen, Jingwei Zhang, Peng Ren, Lei Wang, Xiaoting Hou Jones, James Mayers (2018), IIED Research report  

Chinese investments and Africa’s small-scale producers: disruptions and opportunities, Xiaoxue Weng, Lila Buckley, Emma Blackmore, Bill Vorley, George Schoneveld, Paolo O. Cerutti, Davison Gumbo, Kaala B. Moombe, Stephen Kabwe, Jaqueline Muzenda, Kingstone Mujeyi, Maisory Chacha, Maria Njau, Jesper Jønsson (2018), IIED Research report  

China’s Eco Compensation Programme, Jin Leshan, Ina Porras, Paris Kazis, Alvin Lopez (2018), IIED Research report  

China-Africa investment treaties: do they work?, Lorenzo Cotula, Xiaoxue Weng, Qianru Ma, Peng Ren (2017), IIED Research report  

Chinese agriculture in Africa: perspectives of Chinese agronomists on agricultural aid, Lila Buckley, Chen Ruijian, Yin Yanfei, Zhu Zidong (2017), IIED Discussion paper  

Clean and inclusive? Recycling e-waste in China and India, Kate Lines, Ben Garside, Satish Sinha, Irina Fedorenko (2016), IIED Issue paper

Smallholder farming systems in Southwest China: exploring key trends and innovations for resilience, Yiching Song, Yanyan Zhang, Xin Song, Krystyna Swiderska (2016), IIED Country report  

Chinese businesses in Africa. Perspectives on corporate social responsibility and the role of Chinese government policies, Xiaoxue Weng, Lila Buckley (Editors) (2016), IIED Discussion paper  

Multiple Pathways: case studies of sustainable agriculture in China, Seth Cook, Lila Buckley (Editors) (2015), IIED Research report | 中文

Urbanisation, rural transformations and food security: the view from China, Jennifer Holdaway (2015), IIED Working paper  

Making the most of variability: innovative rangeland management in China, Yanbo Li, Gongbuzeren, Wenjun Li (2015), IIED Briefing  

Recognising informality in the China-Africa natural resource trade, Xiaoxue Weng (2015), IIED Briefing 

Sustainability standards in China-Latin America trade and investment: a discussion, Emma Blackmore, Danning Li, Sara Casallas (2013), IIED Issue paper | 中文

Wagging the dragon's tail: emerging practices in participatory poverty reduction in China, Johanna Pennarz, Song Haokun, Deng Weijie, Jianping Wang (guest editors) (2013), IIED Journal article | 中文

Chinese agriculture goes global: food security for all?, Lila Buckley (2012), IIED Briefing 

Green China: Chinese insights on environment and development, James Keeley and Zheng Yisheng (Editors) (2012), Book  

Pro-poor certification: assessing the benefits of sustainability certification for small-scale farmers in Asia, Emma Blackmore, James Keeley with Rhiannon Pyburn, Ellen Mangus, Lu Chen, Qiao Yuhui (2012), IIED Issue paper 

Additional resources

Blog: China’s investments, Africa’s forests: from raw deals to mutual gains?, by James Mayers (June 2019)

Blog: Crucial agreement with China could save Mozambique’s forests, by Duncan Macqueen (August 2018) | 中文

Long read: Finding a green path for China and Africa?, by James Mayers (August 2018) | 中文

Blog: China's outward public investment – good news for the environment and tackling poverty?, by Paul Steele (October 2017)

Long read: Mist clears on China in African forests, by Khanh Tran-Thanh, Seth Cook, James Mayers and Xiaoxue Weng (February 2017)  

Blog: Chinese engagement in African agriculture is not what it seems, by Ian Scoones (April 2016)  

Blog: CSR practices of Chinese businesses in the global South, by Xiaoxue Weng (March 2016)

Blog: China-Africa trade and investment: benefiting Africa's rural informal economy?, by Xiaoxue Weng (March 2015) 

Blog: A marriage to save the earth: farmers and researchers innovate to conserve biodiversity, by Krystyna Swiderska (October 2014)