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3 Feb 2021

Elia Apostolopoulou, The Conversation Australia and New Zealand

Belt and Road: Chinese investment drives rents up and dismantles workers' rights in port cities, scholar argues

"How China’s Belt and Road Initiative is changing cities – and threatening communities" 3 February 2021


Three cities

My recent research focuses on three cities on the New Silk Road. In Athens, Chinese state-owned shipping and logistics company COSCO is privatising and extending the city’s Piraeus Port. The company seems to be aiming to make Piraeus a gateway for Chinese products to enter Europe.

The second city is Colombo, where the China Harbour Engineering Company is leading a sea reclamation project. The goal is to create a new city from the ocean. Colombo Port City is expected to become a key hub for the Maritime Silk Road.

Finally, in London, Chinese developer Advanced Business Park is supporting the transformation of the Royal Albert Dock from a 35-acre derelict, post-industrial site to a global business zone.

In all three cities, urban space is being altered through a combination of transport infrastructure, real estate and commercial projects. These range from the creation of luxury apartments and hotels, exclusive clubs and office towers to international trade corridors.

Rising inequality

The projects of the New Silk Road have caused problems for vulnerable communities in these cities.

In Athens and London, Chinese investment has led to rising rents which tends to undermine the security of local people in their homes. Piraeus is becoming an industrial zone incompatible with housing: local committees and a number of scientists have expressed their fears about the release of hazardous waste in areas adjacent to primary schools, homes and playgrounds. In London, ABP’s development is aimed at wealthy investors rather than local residents – the Royal Albert Dock is located in Newham, a deprived borough of East London.

In Colombo, the Port City is based on a type of urban regeneration that targets corporate investors and aggravates the displacement of low-income residents and multi-ethnic communities. The project includes luxury hotels, shopping malls, high-end flats, beachfront villas, private gardens, casinos and skyscrapers. There are fears that extended sand excavation will have negative impacts on Colombo’s coastline and fishing breeding areas, affecting the livelihoods of people who depend on fishing.

My research also shows that labour organisations and workers’ rights have been dismantled in both Piraeus and Colombo, and promises of jobs remain unfulfilled in all three cities. Grassroots organisations are either completely excluded from decision making, it seems, or are invited to participate in workshops that have no real power. It indicates that protests against development projects are suppressed, in ways ranging from a heavy police presence on demonstrations to forced evictions. However, local resistance to these projects remains. [...]