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.
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).