More than 50 Chinese workers were seized in two separate incidents in Sudan and Egypt in the past four days, forcing the Chinese government to consider the human cost of its drive for greater global presence and influence.
Twenty-four cement workers kidnapped by Bedouin tribesmen in Sinai, Egypt, were freed on Tuesday night, but the fate of 29 road builders captured by rebels in the troubled region of South Kordofan in Sudan remains unknown.
“Chinese companies go to these dangerous countries without evaluating regional instability and volatile situations,” says Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Now we are meeting trouble: This is a big lesson.”
The number of Chinese workers abroad has skyrocketed in recent years, as Beijing seeks natural resources to fuel its economic growth and state owned companies win more contracts to build roads and railways, dig mines and set up telecom networks in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Chinese companies employed 812,000 Chinese workers abroad at the end of 2011, according to Commerce Ministry figures.
This week’s kidnappings were only the most recent in a string of such incidents. A list compiled Wednesday by the business magazine Caixin recalled 13 hostage-taking attacks involving over 100 Chinese citizens in 10 countries over the past 5 years. Fourteen of the victims died.
The Chinese workers do not seem to have been targeted because of their nationality, but rather because their status as foreigners makes them more valuable as pawns in local conflicts. But a number of factors appear to make Chinese expatriates more vulnerable than their Western counterparts, experts say.
To start with, Chinese companies tend to invest and operate in risky places. “China needs more resources and that drives companies to resource-rich countries that tend also to be dangerous countries,” says Professor Shen.
At the same time, Chinese firms often bring their own laborers to do work that Western companies would hire local employees to do, under expatriate supervision. That means Chinese companies set up camps where large numbers of Chinese workers live in close quarters, making them tempting targets for criminal gangs, guerrillas, or others who find it useful to take foreign hostages.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Chinese contractors often operate in remote areas, using the expertise they have gained at home in building pipelines, roads, and other infrastructure in distant and difficult locations. The nature of such projects, often spread over large and remote areas “makes insurgent attacks more likely because less protection is available,” says Barry Sautman, an expert on Chinese activities in Africa at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Nor do Chinese companies generally have the same sort of protection that Western firms operating in dangerous places receive when they hire foreign security contractors. Though some armed Chinese security men were reported to have joined the Sudanese Army this week in the search for the 29 missing road workers, China has not developed the sort of private security industry, staffed by former military men, that US firms such as Blackwater epitomize.
Instead, Chinese firms have tended to rely on local security forces, “which has not always worked out very well,” says Professor Sautman. “They are in a bind.”
There have been growing calls from the general public at home for the Chinese government to be more aggressive in protecting its citizens abroad.
The Chinese military launched a widely praised rescue mission, involving ships and planes, to evacuate 35,000 of its citizens from Libya as civil war broke out there last year. And in December, the Chinese border patrol force launched joint river patrols on the Mekong with their counterparts from Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand following the murder in October of 13 Chinese crew members from two private cargo vessels plying the river.
Beijing is most unlikely to want to send its forces abroad to countries such as Sudan, however, says Shen. “We don’t know their politics or their conflicts; how could we handle them?” he asks. “We will have to buy local defense and organize in a way not to be left vulnerable. As more Chinese get hijacked and killed, we will work out a better way to defend our people.”