Saturday, August 21, 2010

Chinese Prisoners Rumor Redux: South China Morning Post

Stirring up trouble

Claims that China sends convicts to labour in Africa are unfounded

Email to friend Print a copy Bookmark and Share

What more could promoters of the "China threat" idea add to the litany of charges that have grown stale over a decade? One claim is that China sends convicts to labour in developing countries. We have been to 10 African countries to research China-Africa links. Rumours of Chinese convicts circulate in each one. 

The notion is not new. In the 1970s, 60,000 Chinese laboured alongside an equal number of local workers to build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway. As US historian of the railway Jamie Monson describes it, when the first 1,000 Chinese workers arrived in Tanzania, "all wearing identical gray cotton suits and balancing small blue suitcases on their shoulders ... crowds of curious onlookers gathered, some speculating that the strangers were soldiers or prisoners sentenced to hard labour."

In Africa, rumours of Chinese prisoners arise because of cultural differences in work and living habits. The rigorous working pace and discipline of Chinese employees give rise to the idea that anyone who would work so hard must be a prisoner. Also, skilled Chinese workers and engineers do not live like Western expats, who in Africa have individual houses and local servants. Many Chinese live collectively, often sharing rooms, and do their own housework. Often, local people cannot conceive that foreign professionals would live that way and imagine them to be prisoners
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


Anonymous said...

The last sentence of this article has no evidence either.


lila said...

I recently came across another angle to these rumors, this one from the Chinese side with claims that slavery is part of China's shared history with Africa. See, for example Yuan Wu's "China and Africa"(China Intercontinental Press 2006):

"From the mid-19th century, with the invasions of Western powers, China was reduced to a semi-colonial nation. After the 1880's, hundreds and thousands of Chinese people were press-ganged to Africa, to build railways and work on mines or farms. The Dakar Railway in western Africa, the Congo Railway in central Africa and the gold mines in Southern Africa were soaked with Chinese blood. Similar misfortunes brought Chinese and African nations together." (pp 23-24)

Do we have any evidence that there was Western-controlled Chinese slave labour in Africa, or is this just political propaganda rumoring?