Relieving pressure on overcrowded national prisons by employing convicts as laborers at Chinese-run projects in the developing world is a novel strategy China has adopted — an approach that is certain to create new backlashes against Chinese businesses overseas, besides highlighting the country’s egregious human-rights record.
In addition to being the world’s biggest executioner, China has one of the largest prison populations in the world. The 2009 “World Prison Population List” compiled by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, put the total number of inmates in Chinese jails at 1.57 million.
China has evolved in important ways as a result of its economic “opening,” with the new social pluralism prompting the state to cut back on totalitarian practices. Yet, with its Soviet-style autocratic structure intact, there is little space for political pluralism. Those who challenge government policies or practices or stage demonstrations against official highhandedness risk long imprisonment.
The forced dispatch of prisoners to work on overseas infrastructure projects raises new issues regarding China’s human-rights record.
Thousands of Chinese convicts, for example, have been pressed into service in projects by state-run Chinese companies in Sri Lanka, a strategically important country for China, which is seeking a role in the Indian Ocean. Such is Sri Lanka’s vantage location that it sits astride vital sea lanes of communication. China — in return for being allowed to make strategic inroads — provided Sri Lanka offensive weapon systems that helped end its long civil war. Now, Beijing is being rewarded with port-building, railroad and other infrastructure projects.
Chinese convicts also have been taken to a microstate in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives, where the Chinese government is building 4,000 houses on several different islands as a government-to- government “gift” to win influence there. So far, however, Beijing has failed to persuade the Maldivian president to lease it one of the 700 uninhabited Maldivian islands for setting up a small base for its navy.
The Chinese practice in overseas projects, including in Africa, is to keep the number of local workers to the minimum and to bring in much of the workforce from China. The novel twist is that some batches of laborers now being brought in are made up of convicts “freed” on parole for project-related overseas work.
The convict laborers, like the rest of the Chinese workforce, are housed near the project site. The Chinese logic is that if any convict worker escaped, it would be easy to find the runaway in an alien setting.
Chinese firms actually bring in more than just convict laborers and other workers at overseas projects. To help boost Chinese exports, they get all equipment, steel, cement and other construction material from China.
Such practices run counter to the Chinese commerce ministry’s August 2006 regulations — promulgated in response to the backlash against Chinese businesses in Zambia following the death of 51 Zambian workers in an explosion at a Chinese-owned copper mine — that called for “localization,” including hiring local workers, respecting local customs and adhering to safety norms.
Chinese domestic regulations, however, are sometimes promulgated to blunt external criticism. They are thus seldom enforced, except when a case attracts international attention.
Despite the State Council’s 2006 nine good-conduct directives to Chinese companies engaged in overseas operations, the government and corporate priority still is to aggressively boost exports, even if such a push engenders environmental and social costs for local communities abroad. Indeed, as part of the government’s “going global” policy, Chinese companies are offered major incentives and rewards for bagging overseas contracts and boosting exports.
The use of convict laborers adds a disturbing new dimension to the “going global” strategy, which was first unveiled in 2001.
As it is, some Chinese projects, especially dam-building schemes, have been embroiled in several countries in disputes with local communities. The pressing of Chinese prisoners into service will create new rifts.
Chinese dam-building projects, for example, have been controversial with local communities in Botswana, Burma, Ghana, Pakistan and Sudan, among others. In Sudan, security forces killed three people and wounded several others in April 2006 to scatter demonstrators protesting the 9.2-km-long Merowe High Dam, while a similar protest against another Chinese dam-building project in that impoverished country, at Kajbar, left four people dead in June 2007.
Last April, several small bombs went off at the site of Burma’s Myitsone Dam, whose construction by a Chinese company in the insurgency-torn, northernmost Kachin state is displacing thousands of subsistence farmers and fishermen by flooding a wide swath of land. Located at the confluence of the N’Mai and Mali rivers, the Myitsone Dam is China’s project for China, with the local communities saddled with social and environmental costs as the scheme’s entire generation of 3,200 megawatts of hydropower is earmarked for export.
Chinese companies also have been erecting dams in an internationally disputed area like the Pakistan-held part of Kashmir, drawing protests from India as well as from local communities that view the projects, including the mammoth 7,000-megawatt Bunji Dam, as potentially benefiting only the dominant Pakistani province of Punjab, located downstream.
China is not only the world leader in building dams at home, but also the top dam exporter. In fact, it has no qualms about building dams in contested territories, or in areas torn by ethnic separatism, or in other human rights-abusing countries.
China’s declaratory policy of “noninterference in domestic affairs” serves as a virtual license to pursue projects that benefit governments known to repress their citizens. For example, in Sudan, where China has emerged as the principal backer of a regime accused of committing genocide in the arid western region of Darfur, 13 of the 15 largest foreign companies operating are Chinese, with Beijing making huge investments in the Sudanese economy — from hydropower to oil. It also has sold hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including tanks and fighter-jets, to help prop up President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.
Chinese companies on their own cannot get prisoners released in the thousands, let alone secure passports and exit permits for them. It is obvious that the controversial practice of making use of convicts overseas has been initiated at the instance of the Chinese government.
Until Beijing’s treatment of its own citizens and those of other countries is guided by respect for basic human rights and the rule of law, it is doubtful that China will command respect on the world stage.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of the international best-seller, “Asian Juggernaut” (HarperCollins, New York, 2010).