China has devised a novel strategy to relieve pressure on its overcrowded prisons: employ convicts as labourers on overseas projects in the developing world. The practice has exposed another facet of China’s egregious human rights record which, when it comes to the overseas operations of Chinese companies, includes the government’s failure to enforce its own regulations.
China executes three times as many people every year as the rest of the world combined. Amnesty International has estimated that, in 2007, China secretly executed on average "around 22 prisoners every day".
In addition to being the world’s leading executioner, China has one of its largest prison populations. The 2009 world prison population listcompiled by the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London, put the total number of inmates in Chinese jails at 1.57 million – larger than the population of Estonia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritius, Swaziland, Trinidad & Tobago, Fiji or Qatar.
The forced dispatch of prisoners to work on overseas infrastructure projects raises new issues regarding China’s human rights record. It also adds a new element – the dumping of convicts – to its trade and investment policy, which has been much criticised for dumping goods.
Thousands of Chinese convicts, for example, have been pressed into service on projects undertaken by state-run Chinese companies in Sri Lanka, a strategically important country for China as it seeks to enhance its regional position in the Indian Ocean. After providing Sri Lanka’s government with offensive weapon systems that helped end the country’s decades-long civil war, China has been rewarded with port-building, railroad, and other infrastructure projects.
Chinese convicts also have been dispatched to the Maldives, where the Chinese government is building 4,000 houses on several different islands as a government-to-government "gift" to win influence. So far, however, China has failed to persuade the country’s president to lease it one of the 700 uninhabited Maldivian islands for use as a small base for the Chinese navy.
Chinese companies’ operating practice for overseas projects, including in Africa, is to keep the number of local workers to a bare minimum and to bring in much of the workforce from China, some of which comprises convicts "freed" on parole for project-related overseas work. Convict labourers, like the rest of the Chinese workforce on such projects, are housed near the project site. That way, if any convict worker escaped, he would be easy to find in an alien setting.
In theory, such practices run counter to regulations promulgated by the Chinese commerce ministry in August 2006, in response to a backlash against Chinese businesses in Zambia following the death of 51 Zambian workers in an explosion at a Chinese-owned copper mine. These regulations called for "localisation," including hiring local workers, respecting local customs, and adhering to safety norms. During an eight-nation 2007 African tour, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a point of meeting with Chinese businesses to stress the importance of corporate responsibility in their local dealings.
Moreover, in October 2006, the state council – China’s cabinet – issued nine directives ordering that Chinese overseas businesses, among other things, "pay attention to environmental protection", "support local community and people’s livelihood cause" and "preserve China’s good image and its good corporate reputation".
But Chinese regulations are sometimes promulgated simply to blunt external criticism, and thus are seldom enforced, except when a case attracts international attention. For example, in 2003 China enacted a law on environmental-impact assessments, which was followed in 2008 by "provisional measures" to permit public participation in such assessments. Yet Chinese leaders remain more zealous about promoting exports and economic growth than in protecting the country’s air and water.
Similarly, the state council’s 2006 nine directives to Chinese overseas companies have been subordinated to the drive for exports and growth, even when it imposes environmental and social costs on 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 labourers adds a disturbing new dimension to this strategy. But even before convicts became part of China’s overseas development effort, some Chinese projects, especially dam-building schemes, were embroiled in disputes with local communities in Botswana, Burma, Pakistan, Ghana and Sudan. In fact, several small bombs exploded less than three months ago at the site of Burma’s Myitsone dam, whose construction by a Chinese company in insurgency-torn Kachin state is displacing thousands of subsistence farmers and fishermen by flooding a wide swath of land.
Chinese companies cannot get thousands of prisoners released on their own, let alone secure passports and exit permits for them. It is obvious that the practice of pressing convicts into service on overseas projects has been instituted at the instance of the Chinese government.
Until the Chinese government’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 the respect that it seeks on the world stage.
• Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.