China’s zero-COVID restrictions at BRI projects across Asian and African countries


Chinese state-owned enterprises operating flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects are enforcing Beijing’s harsh COVID-19 restrictions across Asian and African countries, effectively putting thousands of workers in lockdown and separating them from their families.

China’s BRI is an ambitious foreign and economic policy that aims to strengthen Beijing’s economic dominance via hundreds of infrastructure, energy and resources projects across six economic corridors. The trillion-dollar initiative is also expanding China’s foreign influence in the 146 participating countries.

ABC Investigations has learned at least three Chinese companies running the BRI projects around the world are enforcing tough COVID-19 policies.

The latest flashpoint is Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, where hundreds of workers have been ordered not to leave a multi-billion-dollar power plant without permission since March 2020.

That policy is being enforced with the assistance of the Pakistan Army.

“We are not allowed to go home, meet with our loved ones, celebrate our religious or cultural festivals or pursue further education,” said Yusuf*, a Pakistani engineer who is working on the project.

“Many of us had developed suicidal thoughts, and we are treated like prisoners.”

“We have no freedom in our own country,” he said.

The policy is so strictly enforced, the company operating the plant has been unable to hire any local doctors to live on-site to treat sick workers, because Pakistani doctors are unwilling to accept the restrictions.

A local branch of Power China — the world’s biggest power construction company, with more than 80 subsidiaries around the globe — operates the plant.

In Australia, PowerChina owns and operates the Castle Hill Wind Farm in Tasmania.

The company, in a letter to Pakistan’s National Electric Power Regulatory Authority, admitted “the management of the project immediately carried out the lockdown in the plant since March 2020”, but said that it allowed the employees “to enter or leave the plant for regular holidays all the time”.

It explained: “Lockdown is the most-effective measure to ensure the situation [is] always under control but with the lowest cost.”

Zhao Tao, a director of the administration department for PowerChina’s local subsidiary, told the ABC the company had given workers extra bonuses for staying inside.

“We are implementing the zero-COVID policy for the health of our workers,” Mr Zhao said.

He said another coal-fired power plant operated by a Chinese company in Pakistan was also in lockdown, and this was not unusual.

The Chinese companies’ policy mirrors Beijing’s domestic zero-COVID policy, which resulted in tens of millions of people being put into lockdown in megacities like Shanghai and Chengdu.

However, PowerChina’s measures are in stark contrast with Pakistan’s own health guidelines: The country lifted all its COVID-19-related restrictions in March this year.

At another BRI project in Pakistan, the Saindak Copper-Gold Mine in Balochistan, at least 1,000 workers have been stopped by Chinese company MCC Resources Development Limited from leaving its mine site for several months.

In March, family members of the affected workers, mostly women and children, staged a march, demanding change to the draconian policy and to allow freedom of movement.

One year earlier and 10,000 kilometres away, in Zimbabwe, energy workers complained about the same COVID-19 policy at another PowerChina subsidiary, Sinohydro’s coal-fired power plant in Hwange.

Wang Yaqiu, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Beijing’s COVID-19 policy was “abusive” and “a symptom of a top-down, rigid political system that disregards experts’ opinion, community concerns and individual’s human rights”.

“Governments, where these BRI projects are located, must speak up for the workers, whether they are Chinese or citizens of their own country,” Ms Wang said.

When the multi-billion-dollar PowerChina project was first announced in 2015 in Karachi, the city’s political elites welcomed it, and it represented potential job opportunities for many low-income or unemployed citizens.

The Chinese state-owned enterprise hired about 500 Pakistani workers, mostly from Karachi and its surrounding townships and villages. However, since the zero-COVID policy was implemented in 2020, many workers have been unable to leave the plant. They told ABC Investigations they feared losing their jobs if they asked to go outside.

Since the pandemic, Pakistan’s unemployment rate rose to 6.5 per cent in 2021. More than 31 per cent of Pakistan’s youth are currently unemployed, according to research.

Workers from the Karachi plant spoke to the ABC on the condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals. One worker claimed he received permission to visit his family in February but was not called to go back to work until August. He claimed management feared he might bring the deadly virus back to the plant.

ABC Investigations has seen copies of some workers’ leave application forms, including a request for going back home “after six months” of being locked down inside the plant. From the window of his room, Yusuf can see the contours of the mountain on which his home town, Gulshen e-Hadeed, sits. “My home is only 30 minutes’ drive from here, but I can’t see my mother, my brother, when I miss them”, Yusuf said. Bilal also lives in Gulshen e-Hadeed. As the father of two young children, he said his family “suffered a lot” from the prolonged separation. He was not able to take his 3-year-old child to the hospital when he was ill and could not attend his uncle’s funeral. “I decided to leave the company after seeing the difficulties my wife and family were facing,” Bilal said.

“But the company did not pay me for at least five months. “Most of the workers [at the site] are forced to work there because there is huge unemployment in the area, and it is difficult to get a job easily these days.” Workers returning to the plant claim they are subjected to prolonged isolation periods without payment. This has been the case with other Chinese projects in Pakistan.

A vast network of highways, railways and energy plants is being built under the aegis of CPEC that will span the length and breadth of Pakistan. However, opacity has been a hallmark of the CPEC projects, with little public information about the development and financing of specific projects and their terms.

With a total foreign debt topping $US245 billion ($387 billion), Islamabad’s growing dependence on foreign money has been a concern for some experts. The CPEC projects alone account for more than $US80 billion ($126 billion). Many say this debt has provoked growing resentment against China in some quarters. In April, an explosion caused by a suicide bomber ripped through a van parked on a university campus in Karachi, killing three Chinese nationals.

Pakistan’s government vowed to safeguard CPEC projects and ensure “foolproof security of Chinese working across the country”, including setting up a foreign security cell, comprising more than 9,000 regular soldiers of the Pakistan Army and 6,000 paramilitary personnel.

The ABC has confirmed members of the Pakistan military are policing the Karachi power plant. In a letter addressed to the Private Power & Infrastructure Board, PowerChina thanked the Pakistan Army for its “strong support” for its management of COVID-19 restrictions, singling out the assistance of “the 441brigade commander and the 36th battalion commander”. Until now, the military deployment inside the plant has been confidential.

A group chat message obtained by ABC Investigations shows Chinese manager Shao Lian Qiu warning a group of Pakistan workers “not (to) publicise or discuss the configuration of security facilities and security forces in the promises”.

“It is forbidden to take pictures and send them to the outside world. If the above incidents are discovered, military police will confiscate their mobile phones and, at the same time, dispose[sic] of relevant personnel,” Mr Shao wrote, meaning any informants would be laid off.

In China, the unrelenting COVID-19 restrictions have triggered anger and concern among Chinese citizens, who feel they are being held hostage by the government’s harsh lockdowns and policies.

ABC Investigations contacted Pakistan’s federal minister for planning, Ahsan Iqqbal, and the chairman of CPEC’s parliamentary committee, Sher Ali Arbab, for comment but received no response.

The National Electric Power Regulatory Authority and Private Power & Infrastructure Board also did not respond. (Courtesy – abc.net.au)

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