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As it is, some Chinese projects, especially dam-building schemes, have been embroiled in disputes with local communities in several countries, including in Botswana, Burma, Pakistan, Ghana and Sudan. In fact, several small bombs went off less than three months ago 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.

China is not only the world leader in building dams at home but also the top dam exporter. It has no qualms about building dams in disputed territories like Pakistan-held Kashmir, in areas torn by ethnic separatism or in other human rights-abusing countries. But its use of convict laborers at dams and other infrastructure projects will create new rifts with local communities.

China’s declaratory policy of ”non-interference 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 thousands, let alone to secure passports and exit permits for them. It is obvious that the controversial practice of pressing convicts into service at overseas projects has been instituted by 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, China is unlikely to command respect on the world stage.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of Asian Juggernaut (HarperCollins, 2010).