Published On: Sat, Jul 20th, 2019

Over Local Objections, China Muscles Into Belarus

BREST, Belarus — There are no banners, no slogans or even raised voices, never mind fists.

But, for more than a year now, hundreds of protesters have gathered each Sunday to feed pigeons in Lenin Square and, in a heavily camouflaged show of dissent, to display their hostility to a Chinese-funded lead-acid battery factory that they say will spew deadly toxins into the air and groundwater.

The factory, already built on the outskirts of the western city of Brest but waiting permission to start production, has become a symbol of what its opponents see as an unhealthily close relationship between Beijing and the government of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has held power in Belarus since 1994.

Like President Vladimir V. Putin of neighboring Russia, Mr. Lukashenko brooks little dissent. He has also, like the Russian leader, looked increasingly to China for money and inspiration: Europe has lost of much of its sheen as an economic model, but China offers an example of how authoritarian politics can mix with robust economic growth.

“They have made a huge leap forward. This is an example for us,” said Aliaksandr Yarashenka, the head of administration at a Chinese-funded industrial park now rising from what used to be a wasteland of pine trees and swamp near the capital city, Minsk.

Belarus’s official news agency, BelTA, reported recently that the country was close to securing a loan of more than $500 million from China. It quoted the deputy finance minister, Andrei Belkovets, as saying that “we initially counted on a loan from the Russian Federation” but that Russia had stalled on providing funds, so “as an alternative we’ve come to terms with Chinese creditors.”

In recent years, Chinese money has financed new roads, power plants, a luxury hotel in Minsk and, to the fury of the protesters in Brest, the lead-acid battery factory. Such batteries, widely used in cars, contain sulfuric acid and lead, both of which are highly toxic.

“For the Chinese, we are like Africa — poor and needy,” said Vladislav Abramovich, a former doctor who lives in a forest settlement near the battery factory and worries about being poisoned. “America and Europe won’t give money for dirty factories like this, but China doesn’t care and wants business for Chinese companies.”

The pigeon-feeding protesters, a mix of people who live near the battery plant and environmental activists, have carefully avoided criticizing President Lukashenko, instead focusing their complaints on what they say are the grave health hazards posed by the plant and what they believe, without any clear evidence, is substandard Chinese equipment.

The force and scale of this push is on vivid display at Mr. Yarashenka’s development zone, known as the Great Stone Industrial Park. Hailed recently by Mr. Xi as a “model project” of the Belt and Road Initiative, the park aims to turn an area twice the size of Manhattan into a city studded with factories, research centers and accommodation for the army of workers that will be needed to keep the place running.

The project, in which $440 million has already been invested, most of it from China, has provided construction work for the China CAMC Engineering Company, the 25th construction bureau of China’s state railway corporation and a host of other Chinese firms. The first two Chinese companies to set up facilities in the park, said the administration head, were Huawei, the technology giant that Washington says poses a security risk, and ZTE, a Chinese tech company that was accused of violating United States sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

Bisected by two wide avenues — Peking Prospekt and Minsk Prospekt — the park so far seems more a ghost town than a thriving industrial hub. But China is studded with projects that initially seemed to defy economic logic but later grew into manufacturing powerhouses. “When the Chinese set a goal, they move toward it steadily,” Mr. Yarashenka said, adding that Belarus should learn from this approach.

Just two years after the construction of the first building — a hotel and business center that remains mostly empty — the park has several working factories, an eight-story administration building and 25 miles of wide roads lined with lamp posts flying Chinese and Belarusian flags.

“This was swamp and forest before. There was nothing here. Now we have this,” Mr. Yarashenka said, gesturing at a swirl of dump trucks and Chinese construction workers beneath his office window, the site of a technology research center funded with a grant from Beijing. “This project shows that nothing is impossible.”