Popular rumours circulate for other reasons as well. In Zambia's Copperbelt, we interviewed a leader of the opposition Patriotic Front (PF). The party's head, Michael Sata, is famous for his anti-Chinese mobilisations and once claimed that "Zambia has become a labour camp. Most of the Chinese are prisoners of conscience."
The Copperbelt PF leader explained to us, however, that Zambians think that "if 100 Chinese come, 20 of them are skilled and the other 80 are unskilled prisoners ... it's a way for local people to demean the Chinese and to say we're better than the [prisoners]".
In some developing countries, rumour-mongering has a more deliberate aim and seems to be fostered as part of competition between local and Chinese construction companies. Claims of Chinese convict labourers have been made by a prominent local building firm owner in Sri Lanka and by the chief executive of a "leading player" in Kenya's construction industry. In Namibia, the owner of a local construction company told a wire service: "We have a hard time getting jobs from government, while the Chinese ship in container-loads of prisoners to work on public projects." No evidence is ever presented.
Then there is the political element; what better way to deflate the soft power of a strategic competitor than to claim that it exports prison labour and thereby undermines the employment opportunities of host peoples?
A 2010 US State Department report on human trafficking asserts that "an increasing number of Chinese and Indian men recruited to work in Chinese- or Indian-owned mines in Zambia's Copperbelt region are reportedly exploited by the mining companies in forced labour. After work hours, some Chinese miners are confined to guarded compounds surrounded by high concrete walls topped by electrified barbed wire."
We have interviewed Chinese at mines in Zambia. They are salaried, highly skilled workers, engineers or managers. Their compounds' walls and wire serve the same function as similar structures throughout Africa: to keep out intruders.
It is one thing for average people to misunderstand the presence of guest workers in their countries and quite another for competing businesspeople, politicians and researchers to take part in rumour-mongering. Brahma Chellaney, a strategic studies specialist, has recently done that. Chellaney's sensational, but unsubstantiated, charge got his essay about it into prominent newspapers globally, including this newspaper.
Neither we nor other researchers have found evidence to confirm the Chinese prisoners rumour. Let's take but a few examples. Deborah Brautigam, a US specialist in China-Africa relations, has said: "I ask about this issue fairly frequently during my research and have never come across any evidence of Chinese prisoners working in Africa." Anna Ying Chen, research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, has averred that "the rumour that Chinese companies employ prisoners who are confined to their own camp to save costs is indeed a misperception". And Swiss journalists Serge Michel and Michel Beuret, who visited many African countries for a book about the Chinese presence, have said that "in all our travels we have not met a single [Chinese prisoner] and feel free to assert that this is anti-Chinese propaganda".
Anti-Chinese propaganda or not, those who spread such rumours cannot explain why China's government would incur the reputational risk and expense to do so. After all, few convicts are highly skilled and, in developing countries, such labour is relatively cheap. Often claims are based on the idea that China is overflowing with prisoners, but, in fact, it has about the same number of people imprisoned (including all those in "administrative detention") as the US does, despite a population that is more than four times as large.
There may be some former Chinese prisoners among the hundreds of thousands of Chinese working in developing countries, but to contend without evidence that the Chinese government has a programme of sending out great numbers of prisoners is another matter.
Barry Sautman is a political scientist and lawyer at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. Yan Hairong is an anthropologist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University