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 a new backlash against Chinese businesses overseas in addition to highlighting the country’s egregious human-rights record.
China executes three times as many people every year as the rest of the world combined, according to Amnesty International, which in 2008 estimated that “on average China secretly executes around 22 prisoners every day.”
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. Sri Lanka 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 the long civil war on that island nation. Now, Beijing is being rewarded with port-building, railroads 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 president of the archipelago of 330,000 people 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. During an eight-nation 2007 African tour, President Hu Jintao made a special point of meeting with Chinese businesses to stress the importance of corporate responsibility in their dealings at the local level.
Earlier, in October 2006, the State Council - China’s Cabinet - issued nine directives that Chinese businesses overseas, among other things, “pay attention to environmental protection,” “support local community and people’s livelihood” and “preserve China’s good image and its good corporate reputation.”
Chinese domestic regulations, however, are sometimes promulgated to blunt external criticism, rather than actually be enforced, except when a case attracts international attention.
For example, China enacted an environmental-impact assessment law in 2003, which was followed up in 2008 with “provisional measures” to permit public participation in such environmental assessments. Yet it remains more zealous about promoting exports and economic growth at home than in protecting its air and water.
Similarly, 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 boost exports aggressively, even if such a push results in environmental and social costs for local communities. 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.