For years researchers have scoured Africa for evidence that China exports prisoners to Africa. To date, they have found no such evidence, absolutely none. While people share fantastic stories based on hearing about Chinese prison camps, guards and convicts, these are almost certainly myths based on misunderstandings.

There is a widely repeated urban legend that China is sending thousands of prisoners to work on construction projects throughout Africa. Despite years of painstaking research by scholars and human rights activists into this allegation, there is no verifiable evidence of any such practices. Johns Hopkins University Professor Deborah Brautigam, author of Chinese Aid and African Development: Exporting Green Revolution (1998), The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (2010), and Will Africa Feed China? (2015), explains why she thinks this myth is so durable and why so many people around the world find it plausible. Republished with permission by Professor Deborah Brautigam from her blog China Africa: The Real Story. The original post was published on 13 August 2010.


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


Here's the story: Early in July [2010], 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 infrastructure 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 labour 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 labour 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 labour 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.).


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... 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 labour 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 Chellaney 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 labour 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 labour 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 rumour 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.