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Opinion

China is successfully exporting its authoritarian practices globally

Beijing's infrastructure loans come with strings attached

| China
A young person places a sack of cobalt on an 11-year old boy's back near Kasulo mine operated by Congo DongFang Mining, a subsidiary of Chinese company Huayou Cobalt, in Kolwezi , Congo, in July 2018: the horrifying industry is in operation.   © Corbis News/Getty Images

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, ranking member of the Congressional Executive Commission on China and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

We are all aware of the Chinese Communist Party's horrific human rights abuses within China: modern-day slavery, ongoing genocide of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, assaults on freedom of religion and the press -- the list goes on. What is not widely reported is that the Party is also successfully exporting its abusive, authoritarian practices across the globe.

The CCP's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) sends Chinese companies and laborers throughout the developing world to work on infrastructure projects. Beijing markets the BRI as a "win-win" exchange for China and its "partner" nations. But in reality, BRI loans lure developing countries into economic and political dependency. This, in turn, makes them vulnerable to the CCP's demands.

According to recent studies, though, that is not all that the BRI is guilty of. Across much of the globe, Chinese companies working on BRI projects are committing labor abuses on a large scale. From BRI's origin in 2013 to 2020, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre reported 679 allegations of human rights violations connected to Chinese investment. The majority of these allegations came from Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, but there were complaints from South Asia and the Middle East, too.

Accusations are most frequently leveled at Chinese mining operations. In Ecuador and Peru, Chinese miners have arbitrarily detained and beaten native citizens. In a Zambian coal mine, they even opened fire on workers to shut down a protest. Chinese construction corporations are notorious, too, known for violating locals' land rights in Cambodia, Laos and Fiji.

Chinese investment is fueling a construction boom in Cambodia, but it is also bringing headaches. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

But human rights violations have been reported across a wide range of industries. In Uganda and Pakistan, Chinese energy companies have conflicted with local populations and introduced pollution-related health risks. Along the South American and South Asian coasts, Chinese fishing boats ransack the marine environment, robbing fishermen of their livelihoods. And throughout the developing world, Chinese investors are regularly accused of inadequate disclosure and lacking environmental impact assessments.

It does not end there. In 2016, Amnesty International found that the Chinese company Huayou Cobalt was using 40,000 enslaved children -- some as young as seven years old -- to mine for critical minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The children "carried backbreaking loads and worked in intense heat for one or two dollars a day" without physical protection, all the while enduring beatings and extortion from company employees. Despite international outrage, this horrifying industry is still in operation.

These are just a few examples of China's horrid practices and subversive influence.

Chinese nationals are not safe abroad from abuse, either. On the contrary, interviews conducted with BRI workers in different countries show that once overseas, Chinese nationals have their passports confiscated and are subjected to overwork, lack of pay, intimidation, and more. The stories are chilling and reveal what is essentially a global human trafficking network.

Nations must be aware of this dark side of the BRI and all the strings that are attached to it. It is a clear indication that the CCP brings exploitation and a total disregard for the dignity of the human person wherever it operates. The Party is aware of the abuses committed by Chinese companies, many of which are state-owned, and is unwilling to hold them accountable. Furthermore, it is reportedly using its power to cover the abuses up. That means the CCP is just as guilty as its affiliated corporations are.

But while worker mistreatment at the hands of Chinese businesses is a grave evil on its own account, it also poses a serious threat to our rules-based international order. These crimes -- land theft, intimidation, environmental degradation, violence and slavery -- do not just violate human decency. They also violate the laws of sovereign nation-states. In other words, Beijing's actions are undermining developing countries' independence and stability in a blatant, aggressive way.

This is just more proof of what we already knew: that Beijing views itself as the center of the world, entitled to vassal tribute and unquestioning deference from other states.

When hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, the CCP adopted the motto "One World, One Dream." In 2014, General Secretary Xi Jinping declared his intention to "turn China's neighborhood areas into a community of common destiny for humanity." These are propaganda lines, but they also provide real insight into the Party's long-term goal, which is to overturn the existing international order and remake it in its own image.

Chinese companies' human rights violations confirm that the BRI is not a win-win exchange but rather a neocolonial project to make partner nations subservient to the CCP. The purpose of Beijing's new Silk Road is to resurrect Chinese nationalists' vision of the pre-modern world, in which China was at the center of the world stage, and that begins with co-opting the developing world and making it dependent on the CCP.

Countries across the globe should not allow their people to be abused, and their governments to be bullied and marginalized, by a totalitarian regime. Their leaders must reject one-sided "deals" that would undermine their national sovereignty and the well-being of their citizens. We need to shine a light on Chinese companies' abuses, which Beijing would otherwise keep neatly swept under the rug.

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