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.
The industrial park is the biggest such overseas venture financed by China, according to the state-run newspaper China Daily, which hailed Belarus as the “gateway to Europe,” although the country is not part of the European Union and any goods it produces are subject to steep tariffs if they enter Europe.
Mr. Yarashenka said the low cost of labor in Belarus, where average salaries are around $500 a month compared with $2,000 or more in the European Union, easily made up for the burden of tariffs and offered foreign companies a big incentive to set up export-oriented factories in his country.
Mostly shunned by European investors and wary of becoming too dependent on Russia, which has a record of trying to grab its prize assets, Belarus has eagerly turned to China. Beijing makes no demands on Mr. Lukashenko to ease repression or surrender companies like Belaruskali, a leading potash manufacturer over which Moscow has sought to gain control.
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.
Those identified by security forces as protest leaders have been repeatedly detained and fined. At one recent pigeon-feeding session, burly men in uniforms grabbed a prominent opponent of the plant, Sergei Paterukhin, a former actor, while he was live-blogging the event, and bundled him into an unmarked car. It was the 10th time he had been arrested.
The Belarusian company behind the factory, 1AK-Group, denies any environmental risks, insisting that toxic lead waste will total just 6.6 pounds a year. Opponents of the plant dismiss this figure as impossibly low, but Richard Fuller, an environmental scientist and president of Pure Earth, a nonprofit organization based in New York, said that many lead-acid battery factories operated safely in Europe and the United States.
Mr. Fuller said he had not visited the Brest plant but added that, unlike low-cost artisanal operations, it seemed to have modern technology and safeguards capable of limiting toxic waste. “I can’t imagine there would be any particular exposure,” he said.
The Brest battery factory had been scheduled to start production in early June, but in a concession to protesters, the authorities in Brest put it on hold while officials review whether it conforms to environmental standards.
The prosecutor general’s office delivered an even bigger blow to the factory when it announced in early July that, on orders from President Lukashenko, it was investigating the battery plant project over corruption charges and that several senior executives had been detained.
Dmitri Bekalink, a critic of the factory and regular participant in the Sunday protests, said he had no problem with Chinese investment but complained that China had tied funding for the battery plant to contracts for a Chinese construction company, which served as general contractor, and a Chinese engineering company that provided the plant’s core manufacturing equipment.
“They give with one hand but take back with the other,” Mr. Bekalink said.
Viktor Lemeshevsky, the chief of 1AK-Group, declined to be interviewed, and is now a target of the corruption investigation. He earlier told the Belarusian news media that he had asked the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and other Western institutions for loans but was turned down. The European bank has no blanket ban on funding the manufacture of lead batteries but has extremely strict environmental and social impact rules.
China, Mr. Lemeshevsky said, raised no objections and provided funding through a $15 billion line of credit to Belarus’s Development Bank. This pool of credit is 20 times the total current loans to Belarus by the European bank.
Its finances squeezed by a cut in Russian energy subsidies, which will cost Belarus $300 million a year, the government in Minsk had hoped to get a loan from Moscow to fill a hole in its budget. It is now looking to China instead.
Polina Prysmakova, an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University who has studied Beijing’s role in Belarus, her home country, said China was not seeking to push Belarus into a debt trap so as to grab assets, as happened in Sri Lanka, but simply trying to generate business for Chinese companies that have run out of things to build in China.
China, she said, is “oversaturated, with too many new towns, new roads, new power plants and new airports,” which means that “Chinese companies need places like Belarus to keep building.”
Fueling this trend is China’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative, a mammoth investment program that is the signature policy of the Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping. The initiative began in 2013 as a plan to develop land and maritime transport links between China and its foreign markets, but it has since mutated into a catchall cover for Chinese companies pushing for work abroad.
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.”