Friday, August 13, 2010

Is China Sending Prisoners to Work Overseas?

Yesterday I received an email from a UNDP colleague asking me what I thought about recent media stories of "Chinese convict labor" being used overseas, and the public denial of this practice by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Here's the story: Early in July, several papers including the Washington Times and the Sri Lanka Guardian and the Japan Times published an opinion piece written by a New Delhi-based security analyst, Dr. Brahma Chellaney, a former journalist and currently a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Chellaney wrote that China was engaged in "the forced dispatch of prisoners to work on overseas infrastructure projects". He said that Sri Lanka had "thousands of Chinese convicts" working on infrastucture projects in Sri Lanka and that convicts from China were also building 4,000 houses as part of China's tsunami reconstruction aid project in the Maldives. Earlier, in June, opposition politicians in Sri Lanka had claimed that 25,000 Chinese convict labourers were working on the island. At the end of July, the op-ed was carried in Canada's Globe and Mail, and appeared on the Guardian UK (website). I hear it is now being discussed in Brazil.

In a later interview with The Hindu, Chellaney did not give any information about his sources but said that they were "unimpeachable." He told Bloomberg News: “The opinion piece was based on actual investigations and thorough fact-checking and I stand by what I wrote,” Chellaney said. “That they deny is not a surprise.”

The Hindu also quoted an African diplomat, who raised practical questions about the claim:  “Chinese workers overseas is already a sensitive issue, just by their being there and working on projects in large numbers,” said a diplomat from an African country. “Why on earth will China make matters worse by shipping out criminals? It is very hard to believe.”

Dr. Chellaney actually provided no sources, no evidence, and no specifics to support his claim. I've never heard of him, so I asked a friend and former classmate who is a New Delhi-based foreign policy expert whether Dr. Chellaney was a credible source. Here is part of what he replied: "He is a bit of an ultranationalist ... I read this story. I don't believe it. Brahma tends to fly off the deep end sometimes while he is China bashing..." Chellaney's blog contains several other recent articles on China, including "Sri Lanka: Another Case in China's Blood-Soaked Diplomacy" and  "Insatiable Dragon."

I have heard stories of forced Chinese prison labor overseas but these happened during the colonial period:  the British and the Dutch dispatched Chinese and other prisoners to work off their sentences in a number of overseas locations, including South Africa. As noted by Malia Politzer in Migration Information:
The first wave of Chinese immigrants to South Africa was small (only 17 Chinese names were on a convict list dated the year 1724) and consisted largely of convicts and ex-convicts banished from Indonesia to South Africa under Dutch colonial rule. ... Chinese convicts who did come over were considered "black" and largely treated as slaves... 
Although Dr. Chellaney reported that the forced export of prisoners is a "new policy", the claim about modern-day Chinese convict labor in Africa has been around for many years. For example, in May 1991, Roberta Cohen, a trustee for the International League for Human Rights, and a former State Department political appointee, wrote a letter to the New York Times claiming that when she lived in Benin in the 1980s, she had "learned" that Chinese prison labor was being used there. "Seventy percent to 75 percent of the construction workers building the Dassa-Parakou road in central Benin were known to be prisoners" she said, but provided no information as to how she had "learned" this, or how this was "known".

The German paper Der Spiegel reported opposition politician Michael Sata's claim that 80,000 "former prisoners" from China were working in Zambia. Getting more specific, Richard Behar in Fast Company said that he had interviewed an immigration "consultant" in Zambia who said she had "processed paperwork for hundreds of Chinese prisoners." (This made me curious:  How did she know they were prisoners? Behar didn't say.).

Chinese engineers quarters, Sierra Leone 2007. Photo by DB
My best guess is that stories like this are largely urban myths. People view the way that Chinese construction workers live, in extremely basic conditions like those on the left, in compounds on the construction site. These construction sites are usually surrounded by security fences, but this is to keep the construction site secure, and in particular, to prevent the stealing of construction materials, rather than to keep the workers locked inside.

Since the Chinese first began exporting labor in the late 1970s, they have sent 4,970,000 people to work abroad (including to Hong Kong) according to official statistics from the Ministry of Commerce.

Forcing prisoners to work overseas as official policy, as Dr. Challaney maintains, is most unlikely. Is it possible that some Chinese prisoners might have been sent overseas voluntarily, on the kind of work release apparently practiced even today in the state of Louisiana for the BP oil spill cleanup? Certainly, prison labor is commonplace in China, as it is in some parts of America. Given the high levels of corruption, the need for local governments to raise revenues, and the multiple Chinese actors operating overseas, it's plausible that a contractor could make a deal with local prison officials. But exporting large contingents of prison labor as official policy would be politically very risky. If it has happened, it is almost certainly uncommon and ad hoc.

I ask about this issue fairly frequently during my research and have never come across any  hard facts or evidence of Chinese prisoners working in Africa. But after giving a talk at a university here in the US a few months ago, I met a student who told me that he actually had some evidence on this from his own travels. I have encouraged him to write this up and will link to his blog if he decides to do so.

What do other researchers say? Swiss journalists Serge Michel and Michel Beuret report in their book China Safari (p. 252):
...the dragon slayers and some NGOs have spread the rumor that most Chinese workers in Africa are actually prisoners. But in all our travels we have not met a single one and feel free to assert that this is anti-Chinese propaganda.
I encourage anyone with actual evidence on this issue to comment. But please provide specific evidence, rather than sightings of Chinese workers who looked like prisoners, or other unsubstantiated claims.


Anonymous said...

It is unprecedented that such an outright lie has been spread so broadly around the world. Not a single piece of evidence yet it is widely accepted as a fact in many communities.


Anonymous said...

it might be a lie (although it could contain some truth), but its extremely telling anyways that most people see the Chinese government in such a way as to assume that sending prisoners overseas would be almost a normal thing for them to do.

whether true or not, the Chinese government has built a reputation where they are easily seen as capable of such a thing.

Anonymous said...

You may not believe of never heard of, but the countries enjoy so called "free press" can be extremely bias on certain object or topic. This is called "yellow journalism". China is exactly such a topic on west press.


Carlos Oya said...

as you say, 'urban myths' and China bashing. It is nonsensical and opportunistic. What I find outrageous is that all these 'serious' newspapers allow these pieces without crosscheck. I am tempted to send a piece on the use of prison labour by US oil companies, based on my strong belief not on evidence, of course. After all, prisons in the US are overflowing, aren't they?

Simba said...

Being a Chinese working in Africa for almost 17 years, engaged in the Construction/Management of Chinese aided projects or the projects awarded by public tenders, I can tell that it's just 'urban myths' and China bashing.

Most of the workers are from their mother company in China, and some of them are recruited by the manpower supply agencies in China. In either case, no one would like to hire a labour who was ONCE a prisoner, let alone a prisoner in the prison.

Anonymous said...

Today lots of young Chinese, some are newly graduated from universities seeking job opportunities in Africa. No surprisingly, most of such employers are China's SOEs. These young guys' most concerns are salary, diseases, and loneliness in Africa, as girls are discouraged to venture into this hot land.If you know some Chinese, this is a BBS named "Fighting in Africa"


Unknown said...

To my knowledge it is correct that there is no evidence that Chinese prisoners were put to work abroad.
It is also correct that this accusation is frequent published in the press.
But in local and national media sources in Africa and Asia.
But because there are no reliable sources cited it rarely happens that Western quality newspapers take this over.

Anonymous said...

While the evidence that Chinese prison labor is being used in Africa may be seriously lacking, the fact that Africans (and others) believe it exists cannot be simply explained away as, thus far, unsubstantiated accusations for some, or that it is simply anti-Chinese propaganda.

As noted above by another anonymous commentator, the Chinese government has not endeared itself as one which is above using prison labor in its own economy. A possible leap to using them overseas to support Chinese economic interests may seem a little far fetched to better informed people, but historical precedence in the way it has treated some its own workers since the cultural revolution makes it difficult to simply suggest that China would never use prison labor overseas. Remember, the same party that oversaw the disasterous failings of the "Cultural Revolution" and crushed the unarmed protesters at Tiananmen Square with tanks is the same party still running China. Irrespective of the truth about prison labor in Africa, it's always difficult to run away from one's own past.

Yet, for all of it's self-proclaimed "goodwill gestures" in Africa, there are many reasons Africans continue to perceive the Chinese the way they do far beyond simple accusations of "anti-Chinese propaganda". For example, the cultural and language barriers between the Chinese and Africans do a lot to segregate Chinese workers from their host populations and different Chinese social norms concerning their interactions with other cultures can easily be misperceived as any number of inaccurate situations. Conversely, what has China done to respond or reverse such misperceptions? In most countries the local populations hear little to nothing directly from their Chinese guests, thus the rumors and misperceptions continue.

While there may be significant cultural factors which exist affecting, even limiting inter-cultural contact and communication , until Chinese in Africa take a more proactive approach to engaging their hosts in Africa, such rumors will continue to define African perceptions or misperceptions of the Chinese workers in their midsts.

Unknown said...

Well, I have heard this story again and again, but is it possible for a Government to send convicted persons to work overseas? Why will the government of China do this? If it is found to be true...this action leaves much, so much, to be desired. A criminal is a criminal because without reformation / rehabilitation the tendency to commit more crime is ready and alive. Africa wake up !!! ..... 007

Anonymous said...

The real issue here is the use of Chinese labourers while huge unemployment looms in the host African countries. This needs to be addressed before African's anymosity towards the Chinese is removed.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where I can find statistics on Chinese labor (not necessarily prisoners) in Africa?

Karin said...

@ the various Anonymous: Africa is not a 'hot' land in its entirety. Temperatures in the South African winter nights are around -2 (yes, MINUS) and you can actually sky in Lesotho. Summer in Johannesburg never reaches temperatures higher than 30 degrees. On the contrary, some Chinese areas can reach 38 degrees in summer.

So, a simple calculation for those ignorant enough to label the whole of Africa as a 'hot land': which place is hotter in August, Beijing or Johannesburg?

Xiongmao said...

I was in Windhoek at the end of November 2011 where I had a brief encounter at a guest house with two men working in the oil industry. The first one was from South Africa and works for an American oil company, doing offshore drilling. He said he has worked in Angola for many years and was killing time in Windhoek, waiting for his next deployment in Angola. (Apparently at the moment the Angolan government is restricting the number of visas they give out to expats, but according to this man Chinese expats had no problems obtaining visas for Angola.)

The second man (I forgot to ask his nationality) currently works in Brazil, also in the oil business. He told me about an encounter four years ago at Luanda airport with a Chinese man. The Chinese man was part of a group of Chinese workers who had come to Luanda on a chartered airplane. The Chinese man told him (in English) that the group was composed of Chinese felons (who had committed petty crimes) who were sent to work in Angola for two years in exchange for a shortening of their sentence.

The man I spoke to sounded very convincing and I had no reason to believe he was making the story up. I am aware of the fact that a lot of "urban legends" go around in Africa about Chinese prison labor and that it's impossible to assess the validity of the story the man told me, but this was a first-hand account. Both men had been to Angola and came across as very knowledgeable about what is going on in that country. So perhaps Chinese companies did employ prison labor in Africa in the past after all, albeit on a limited scale?

However, two objections can be raised against the truthfulness of this story: Why would the Chinese person be so forthcoming about this information? And how many Chinese convicts are able to speak English well enough to convey this sort of information?

Deborah Brautigam said...

Thanks for your contribution, Xiongmao. As I said above, it would not surprise me if the urban legend of Chinese prisoners has some basis in fact, i.e. if it has happened, albeit clearly not on a mass basis. But I think your objections at the end of the story above are good ones. I'm still waiting for someone fluent in Chinese to provide a first hand account of this. Or even someone who has returned to China from this kind of experience and written about it. I don't think there has been anything like this.

seo service said...

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 list compiled 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.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a westerner, nor am I African. I was brought up in the far east, currently live in the west, married to an African, and have close family of friends from the middle east and africa. This is true, and Chinese prisoners have been seen working in Africa. They're brought in trailers and drivers are warned not to drive through towns so as not to raise any suspicions. If any 'white' man are seen around within a radius of a few miles where these men are working, their 'masters' would be warned and necessary 'action' taken to hide the situation. They're given zebra / horse meat and my friend was amazed at just how 'strong' these men were working under such intense heat. There's a shoot to kill policy, so they escape at their own risk if any try to do that.

Anonymous said...

My friend was a consultant in Central Africa supervising an infrastructure project. He told me that he actually saw Chinese prisoners manned by the military on his infrastructure sites. No one said anything because the african governments allow it. These labors were handcuffed at the end of the day and taken to the place where they would sleep for the night.

Deborah Brautigam said...

@anonymous, if you can put me in touch with your friend, send me an email at If this story is real, we need to have more details from him: the country, the infrastructure project where your friend worked.

Anonymous said...

Even if its true , its still faar better to wok outside rather to waste life in jails n become more big criminals.
At least when they r free they know value of life n work more better n b good hummans .
West just love to critisize china as they know they cant stop china from growing economically worldover.

In 1724 coloniol days , when dutch n british was doing it , it was ok. Now they criticize although its better way to corrrect their citizens


Unknown said...

It is not a lie.... Based on a very close friend being an eye witness of this Chinese practice in Africa!

Unknown said...

It is for your information, am working in Oman, here I came to visit a site in Sohar, where only Chinese prisoners in strenghth approx. 1200-1500 nos, working.

Anonymous said...

I am a Zambian in Zambia working for a big national project being carried out by a Chinese company...there could be some truth to the myths ... there are many Chinese labourers on the project who might be prisoners, there is talk about it amongst themselves but it needs actual confirmation

henki1986 said...

sorry, but in indonesia, we have chinese too, and they said worker from beijing that work there is prisoner. believe or not... that the fact...