China Under Scrutiny as Abuses in Africa Persist
The smartphone video showing a Chinese mining manager whipping two Rwandan employees about their heads with a piece of rope as they sat with their hands tied behind their backs went viral in August 2021.
The video became a scandal. Outraged people closely followed the resulting court case, and the recent history of abuses by Chinese nationals across the continent has come under a microscope.
A Rwandan court found Sun Shujun guilty of torture and sentenced him to 20 years in prison on April 20, 2022. Sun had accused the two men of stealing minerals from his company, Ali Group Holdings.
“It is clear that [Sun] tortured the victims and issued corporal punishment with malicious intent,” Judge Jacques Kanyarukiga said, according to local reports. “This is a grave crime.”
The high-profile case prompted a rare public rebuke from the Chinese government.
“The Chinese Embassy requires Chinese enterprises and citizens in Rwanda to abide by the local laws and regulations,” read a statement issued by the embassy in Kigali. “Any suspected illegal behaviors found should be reported to the police timely, rather than being dealt with unlawfully on one’s own.”
Experts noted the significance of the Rwandan court taking a stand.
“It’s a precedent in the context of what it means for African labor and the judicial space, not just for African countries, but it also raises the question for the African Union,” said Sanusha Naidu, China in Africa Programme research director at Kenya-based social justice nonprofit Fahamu, during a live Twitter discussion on April 21.
“They [Chinese companies] have to realize that this is no longer the Africa of the past.”
Although the incident evoked outrage on the continent, it was just one example in a pattern of abuses of which Chinese citizens have been accused in Africa.
A 2021 report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre found 181 human rights abuse allegations connected to Chinese investments in Africa between 2013 and 2020. The report listed 679 allegations linked to Chinese business conducted internationally.
The highest number of incidents occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, site of another of the worst and most publicized abuses.
A Chinese coal mine owner, Zhang Xuen, shot and seriously injured two Zimbabwean workers after a wage dispute in the town of Gweru in 2020.
Zhang was charged with attempted murder, and his trial is pending.
The Chinese embassy in Harare said it was “highly concerned” but insisted the case is “an isolated incident.”
Shamiso Mtisi, deputy director of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), disagreed with the embassy’s characterization.
“ZELA is aware of several cases of abuse of Zimbabwean workers by Chinese employers, and this happens on a regular basis at some of the Chinese mining companies,” he told the Voice of America. “I think the problem is they see themselves as superior.”