Beijing (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Around the world, especially in developing countries, Chinese firms are building dams, railways, roads, buildings and other infrastructure, often in exchange for oil and precious minerals. Thousands of workers employed are prisoners, on conditional release.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, says that thousands of Chinese prisoners were used in the construction of ports, railways and other infrastructure built by Chinese state companies in Sri Lanka, a country which has great strategic importance because of its key position in the Indian Ocean.
Other detainees were sent to build 4 thousand houses on the Maldives islands, a "gift" from Beijing to the local government, to gain favours. Moreover, the president of the Maldives has not accepted the request to Beijing for one of the 700 uninhabited islands as a Chinese naval base.
China carries out three times the death penalty around the world. There is no official data, but Amnesty International has estimated that in 2007 Beijing executed "approximately 22 inmates per day”. But Beijing has also the largest prison population worldwide. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies based in London, in 2009 it numbered 1.57 million inmates: more than the population of countries like Estonia or Qatar.
Chinese firms who create works abroad prefer to hire a low number of local workers, especially for labour, and bring most workers from China. The detainees "released" on parole lead normal lives of Chinese workers in these places: the live near the workplace, they mix among themselves, and have little chance to flee in a foreign country.
These prisoners are all volunteers. Experts believe that the system is favoured by Beijing: Chinese firms involved in these projects are generally state owned and could not, by themselves, convince many prisoners and take on responsibility, obtain passports or visas for foreign travel for all. The prisoners are used for cheap labour.
In theory, the Chinese government is committed, even formally, to employ local workers in the projects, as requested by States to help the country's economy, and meet safety standards. But many companies still use mostly Chinese workers. The advantages are that they accept longer and harder working hours compared to local workers, and do not create problems related to wages or unions or safety standards.
In the past China was highly contentious by foreign countries over major disasters or protests by workers demanding their rights. The memory of incidents like the explosion of a copper mine in Zambia, being mined by a Chinese company, is still alive, an accident that claimed the lives of 51 local miners and resulted in massive protests.