Foreign prisoners marching in Shanghai Qingpu Prison. Image credit: Phoenix Weekly
The paucity of statistics on China’s prisoner population sometimes results in observers concluding that recent events represent new trends. For example, a recent spate of arrests and convictions of foreign nationals—e.g., Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt on suspicion of espionage, Briton Peter Humphrey and Chinese-American Yu Yinzheng for allegedly trafficking in private information, and naturalized American citizen Vincent Wu for allegedly running a criminal enterprise (China does not recognize Wu’s American citizenship)—has raised concerns that foreign firms and businesspeople operating in China are being treated more harshly. Official statistics uncovered by Dui Hua indicate that growth in China’s number of foreign prisoners may be an ongoing trend, but that historically, the most common reason for incarceration probably relates to a different business, trafficking in drugs.
Annual volumes of Beijing Prison Yearbook show that the number of foreign citizens (not including Taiwanese or Hong Kong and Macau “compatriots”) imprisoned in the capital nearly quintupled between 2006 and 2010, reaching 232 prisoners, or 1.8 percent of the prisoner population in China’s second largest city. The number of countries with citizens incarcerated in Beijing rose from 22 to 53. The number of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau residents incarcerated in Beijing rose 170 percent to 68 prisoners.
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Growth in the number of foreign prisoners took place virtually across the board. The combined number of prisoners from North America, Europe, and Australia tripled. However, the biggest growth came from African and South Asian countries, specifically Nigeria and Pakistan. The number of African prisoners rose from just nine in 2006 to 121 in 2010 to account for more than half of Beijing’s foreign prisoners. Outside Beijing, Dongguan Prison is known to be holding a large number of African prisoners who reside in Guangdong Province, home to tens of thousands of African migrant workers, business people, and those seeking political asylum in Hong Kong.
The reasons for the sharp rise in foreign prisoners in Beijing likely vary by country. Drug trafficking is probably a primary reason for the uptick in Pakistani and Nigerian prisoners, if not for prisoners of other countries. According to a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), China arrested 1,559 drug traffickers from 50 different countries in 2009. The previous year foreign drug traffickers arrested in China were primarily from Burma, Pakistan, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Nigerians and Pakistanis accounted for an equal percentage of drug trade arrests in Pakistan from 2000 to 2008, and police in Kazakhstan frequently report the involvement of Nigerians in trafficking Afghan heroin to China from Kazakhstan, the UNODC report said.
Although official data does not break down foreign prisoners by crime, a prison inspector told Dui Hua that most foreign nationals are convicted of economic crimes, including smuggling common goods, and drug-related crimes. A smaller percentage is convicted of violent crimes, and very few are convicted of endangering state security crimes, making the espionage charges against the Garratt’s quite rare. American geologist Xue Feng (薛峰) is the only foreign national known to be presently serving a sentence for endangering state security in China. He was transferred to Beijing No. 2 Prison to serve his sentence in 2011.
Direct foreign investment in Beijing rose a relatively modest 40 percent over the five-year period from 2006 to 2010. The 2008 Summer Olympics took place during the period, but the numbers of tourists visiting the capital in August 2008, the month the games were held, were a disappointing 388,000, considerably less than the anticipated 500,000. The poor attendance was due to the global economic crisis, which also affected investment and trade, and to strict security and visa controls imposed on visitors to Beijing.
South Korea, Malawi, North Korea, and Sweden were the only countries for which official data showed a decline in prisoner numbers. The number of South Korean prisoners dropped from 13 in 2006 to seven in 2010. This may be due to requests for prison transfers. According to a report by The Global Times, South Korea originated 107 of the 198 requests for prisoner transfers (both within China and to foreign countries) that the Ministry of Justice had received by early 2012. Dui Hua research indicates that South Korean pastors and missionaries have been imprisoned in China for helping North Korean refugees enter South Korea, while those charged with proselytizing have been deported.
Of the 232 foreign citizens in Beijing prisons at the end of 2010, 184 were men and 48—a striking 21 percent—were women. (Women generally account for 2 to 10 percent of national prison populations.) Most men were incarcerated in Beijing No. 2 Prison where they accounted for nearly 15 percent of all prisoners. Women were incarcerated in Beijing Women’s Prison. As in most provinces and municipalities with large foreign prisoner populations (e.g., Shanghai and Guangdong Province), in these Beijing prisons, foreign nationals are housed in separate cell blocks. Foreign prisoners, like prisoners from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, generally do not mix with inmates from the mainland. Yancheng Prison, China’s only prison run by the Ministry of Justice and not by a provincial prison bureau, is located immediately across Beijing’s border in Hebei Province. It houses scores of foreign nationals, including several sentenced by Beijing courts.
Managing large numbers of foreigner prisoners poses challenges for the Beijing Prison Administration Bureau (PAB). In addition to granting prisoners regular monthly visits from their family members, countries with consular agreements with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs are permitted regular access to their citizens, in many cases in the form of monthly visits. In 2010, the PAB arranged more than 3,000 visits to foreign prisoners by diplomats, embassy officials, and family members from more than 40 countries and translated over 300 letters. That year, Beijing prisons also received 145 overseas visitors on legal exchanges including members of judicial delegations from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. A delegation of American experts organized by Dui Hua visited Beijing’s only juvenile reformatory in May 2010.
In 2008 a report by the Ministry of Justice called language and healthcare the two biggest problems facing the management of incarcerated foreign nationals, The Global Times reported. These and other issues can cause tension, and disciplinarily actions are sometimes taken. A group of 10 foreign citizens who were deemed to “pose management problems” was dispersed from Beijing to prisons in Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and Jilin in 2010.
Deaths of incarcerated foreign nationals, though rare, do occur. A Zimbabwean woman died of heart complications resulting from AIDS in 2010. The Zimbabwean Embassy was notified, and the woman was cremated.
Beijing statistics provide a glimpse of what may be a national upswing in the number of foreign nationals imprisoned in China. Nationwide, there are more than 6,000 foreign nationals serving sentences in Chinese prisons, The Global Times reported citing Guo Jian’an, director of the Ministry of Justice Department of Judicial Assistance and Foreign Affairs. In order to ensure the health, rights, and dignity of these men and women, consular involvement and access as well as Chinese laws are necessary—China’s Prison Law does not mention foreign prisoners.
Prison transfers should also be considered. China has signed bilateral prisoner transfer agreements with 11 countries and has been approached by more than 20 other countries regarding such agreements, according to The Global Times report. Guo Jian’an said China is willing to work on a case-by-case basis to transfer prisoners and has transferred more than 40 foreign prisoners, or about 10 people per year.
Particularly where drug crime is the major driver of incarceration, root causes like drug use, addiction, and poverty must also be addressed both inside and outside China to help people lead free lives.