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 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.
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.