URBAN MYTH

Do Chinese use prison labour in Africa?

This is an old story, but because it’s the right kind of sensationalism, I suppose it has endured.

In Summary

• Domestically, prison labour is actually very common in China, considering their prison population of 2.3 million, second only to the US.

• Ideologically, it’s also accepted, known as “reform through labour.” It is illegal to export any of the outputs of this labour.

Inmates listen to a speech at Taiyuan No1 prison in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, on September 1, 2010.
Inmates listen to a speech at Taiyuan No1 prison in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, on September 1, 2010.
Image: REUTERS

The first time I heard this story recently, it sounded so far-fetched I didn’t even pay attention to it. My immediate response was to laugh it off, but by the time I heard it the third time, I knew I had to investigate it.

It wasn’t just Kenyans, or Africans, who were talking to me about it, but random people across the globe – Spain and Croatia. According to all these random people, the Chinese were using prison labour to build in Africa.

This is an old story, but because it’s the right kind of sensationalism, I suppose it has endured. In fact, it started with a couple of rumours in the early 1990s, but they were never confirmed.

This claim then resurfaced when several pretty legitimate papers, including the Washington 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. However, he’s not viewed as an expert of the China-Africa field, but rather, an Indian ultranationalist, which might explain his China-bashing.

One of the most prominent thinkers about China-Africa relationship, Deborah Bräutigam, very concretely refuted this as baseless and most likely an urban myth. As she notes, it is true that during the colonial period the British and Dutch brought Chinese and other prisoners to work off their sentences in places such as South Africa. Back then, this was not uncommon, and it’s similar to how Australia started as a penal colony.

One of the most prominent thinkers about China-Africa relationship, Deborah Bräutigam, very concretely refuted this as baseless and most likely an urban myth. As she notes, it is true that during the colonial period the British and Dutch brought Chinese and other prisoners to work off their sentences in places such as South Africa. Back then, this was not uncommon, and it’s similar to how Australia started as a penal colony.

It’s very likely that these rumours started with such colonial seeds, and grew roots when people see the extremely basic conditions Chinese workers live on in the construction sites. The construction sites are usually surrounded by high walls, razor wire, and security cameras, not because they’re trying to keep convicts in, but because they’re trying to keep their building supplies secure.

I have heard a variation of this story that is even more exaggerated, from a Chinese friend, that these convicts, while serving out their sentences in various rural villages across Africa get addicted to drugs. Even when they can go home, they choose to stay, creating “Chinese zombie villages” across Africa. This, I can tell you, for sure, is false, only propagated by Chinese racism.

Furthermore, it is true that domestically, prison labour is actually very common in China, considering their prison population of 2.3 million, second only to the US. Ideologically, it’s also accepted, known as “reform through labour.” It is illegal to export any of the outputs of this labour, but there have been issues with enforcing this rule, as often times factory work is contracted out.

Even from personal experience, when I fly back and forth between Nairobi and Shanghai, I am mostly on these flights with blue-collar workers. I find their conversations hilarious, but mostly they explain to me that the reason they put their hands up to come to Africa is because the pay is better and it can even accelerate promotions when they return. Luckily, none of them seem like convicts to me.