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By Lisa Navarrette, ICC Fellow

Part III of this series discussed China’s persecution, human rights abuses, and punishment. This article will address how China is using investment in developing nations to spread its authoritarianism and continue its human rights abuses.

China has the second largest population on Earth at 1.4 billion. With two million active soldiers and the largest navy fleet in the world, China is a force to be reckoned with. [i] China is now a global actor, exerting its influence in every corner of the world including the South Pacific, South and Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. China is transitioning from a manufacturing-driven economy to a services-oriented financier. Worldwide, China invested nearly $1 trillion in emerging markets in the last ten years. It is the world’s single largest creditor nation.

China’s trade reached $495 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean with infrastructure projects and fuel trade. South America is the largest producer of lithium which is important for Chinese supply chains and electric vehicle batteries. China has increased investment in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, and Peru. Argentina is negotiating a series of construction projects with China. In January, the two countries agreed to drop the U.S. dollar in bilateral trade.

In Peru, China committed $3.6 billion to build a mega port after acquiring 60% of a Peruvian mining group. Chile has benefited from $8 billion of investment from China, and China is seeking to build its own factory in Chile to produce lithium. Recently, Brazil signed 15 agreements with China to include cooperation on semiconductors, cybersecurity, and 5G mobile communication. Many other Latin American countries are seeking investment from China to build mega ports, data centers, and telecommunication centers.

Free trade agreements are for the mutual benefit of both countries. However, China is facing criticism for its lending practices to poor countries, leaving them struggling to repay debts and open to a Chinese takeover. More than 40 low- and middle-income countries have debt exposure of more than 10% of their GDP. Countries such as Djibouti, Laos, Zambia, and Kyrgyzstan have debts equal to 20% of their GDP. [ii]

This allows China to exert considerable influence on nations it has loaned money to. Critics have pointed to Sri Lanka as an example of how Chinese investment can leave a country crippled and under Chinese power. Sri Lanka borrowed funds from China to build a massive port project using loans and contractors from China. The effort struggled to be viable leaving Sri Lanka saddled with growing debts. In 2017, Sri Lanka agreed to give China a 70% stake in the port on a 99-year lease in return for further Chinese investment.

With debt enslavement on a massive scale, China can exert its version of human rights on the African continent. The Burkina-Faso ambassador, Adama Compaore, stated that “Western forces were hyping up the so-called Xinjiang-related issues and launching unprovoked attacks on China” while the Congolese ambassador, Daniel Owassa called the genocide of the Uyghurs “anti-terrorism measures.” [iii] Poor developing countries- many highly indebted to Beijing and dependent on China for most trade- are not able to condemn China for human rights abuses. China also organizes academic conferences and supplies the technology in Africa to normalize its alternative, authoritarian international law, and illiberal, China-dominated global order.[iv]

Other countries that trade extensively with China, such as Myanmar, India, and Malaysia are mimicking China’s policies and becoming more authoritarian.

In the majority Buddhist country of Myanmar, thousands of Christians and Muslims have been murdered in a nationwide government crackdown on religion. [v] While another 700,000 have been forced to flee to Bangladesh.[vi] India continues to build concentration camps to house religious minorities. When the state of Manipur had a violent ethnic clash in May, the government shut the internet down to “prevent social media from stirring unrest.” [vii]

Recent legislative amendments have been enacted in Malaysia to codify torture and prevent protests. [viii] What do all these countries have in common? They all rely heavily on trade and investment from Beijing. China’s global investment and growing authoritarianism are dangerous to freedom, particularly religious freedom.

[i] Yuan, S. (2021, October 29). Just how strong is the Chinese military?

[ii] Wang, K. (2022, January 6). China: Is it burdening poor countries with unsustainable debt? BBC News.

[iii] Olewe, D. (2021, May 1). Why African countries back China against the West on human rights. BBC News.

[iv] Larkin, T. (2022). China’s Normfare and the Threat to Human Rights. Colunbia Law Review, 122(8), 2285–2322.

[v] Walker, T. (2021, November 4). Myanmar Religious Groups Say They Face Persecution. VOA.

[vi] Indergaard, Z. T. H., David Moe, John. (2023, September 15). Myanmar’s Christians: As Our Churches Burn and People Flee, We Need the US’s Help.

[vii] Hussain, Z. (2023, May 5). Ethnic tensions in India’s northeast forces evacuation of thousands to guarded camps. Reuters.

[viii] Amnesty International. (2022b). Human rights in Malaysia. Amnesty International.