Over the last few decades, China has rapidly established special economic zones (SEZ) not only within its borders but also in different parts of the world. While initial efforts focused on using domestic SEZs as a way to facilitate its market-oriented reforms, a large number of regional SEZs have emerged since the beginning of the 21st century.

A tiger sits in a cage in the Golden Triangle special economic zone in northwestern Laos (Getty)

However, as China expands its economic footprints and influence across the world through SEZs, experts told the Independent that regions with high levels of Chinese investment face the risk of environmental degradation and flouting of local and international laws.

“Investors rarely care very much about the local environment,” said John Walsh, an expert on regional economic development in Southeast Asia. “They may link their activities with timber clearing, monocropping plantations or even bananas in northern Myanmar and generally moving local people out of the way.”

Mr Walsh claimed SEZs in Myanmar and Laos have become “overseas enclaves of China”, with Chinese money, Chinese language and Chinese laws being the dominant currency, language and laws within the zones. “Local people are made to feel like second-class citizens and their employment status reflects that,” he added.

In a research paper published in 2018, Mr Walsh and two other academics used a SEZ in Boten, Laos, as an example to document how China uses SEZs along its border to facilitate illegal wildlife trade. The study found that medical use is the most dominant purpose for wildlife trade in the SEZ.

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“The findings confirm the important and active role Boten plays in the illegal wildlife trade, where an inherent link with China was apparent,” the paper concluded. “Lao’s economic zones are known to cater to largely Chinese markets, including for the illegal sale of wildlife.”

Steve Galster, chair of the Freeland Foundation, said SEZs had a history of facilitating illegal wildlife trade. “These SEZs reduce custom inspection, which allows trade to be sped up,” he told the Independent.