x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Chinese companies send workers into risky regions

China has decided to venture into volatile regions in large part to feed its appetite for energy and other raw materials.

BEIJING // Two groups of Chinese workers were kidnapped last month in Africa, highlighting the growing risks they face as the country's businesses aggressively seek work in some of the world's most dangerous places.

Some critics in China say workers are being sent to volatile countries before the companies and the government are prepared to deal with the threats their citizens face.

On January 28, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, a rebel group, seized 29 Chinese working on a road-building project in Sudan. One of the workers was killed in a gunfight. On Tuesday, 25 Chinese workers were kidnapped in Egypt. The workers in Sudan remain captive; the ones in Egypt have been freed.

China has developed strong economic ties in dangerous nations around the world, places few western businesses are willing to go because of the risks. China, however, has decided to venture into volatile regions in large part to feed its appetite for energy and other raw materials. The kidnappings demonstrate what tempting targets Chinese have become as they grow richer and travel the world for work and for pleasure. Ensuring the safety of Chinese lives and assets has become a litmus test for the government, which wants to prove to its citizens that China is respected around the world.

China has sent teams to secure the release of those held in Sudan.

Yesterday, the rebels said they are looking for ways to hand over the workers.

"Presently we are looking for a way ... to release these Chinese workers, set a date for their release and the party to which they are to be handed over," Arno Taloudy, a rebel spokesman, told China's state news agency Xinhua.

China's growth and willingness to do business in risky regions makes it "at least the number two victim country whose citizens are attacked abroad", said Ding Xueliang, a foreign affairs analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "In the future, with China's increased overseas investments, increased overseas tourism and increased overseas business, such terrible attacks will happen more and more often."

Last year Chinese workers were kidnapped by suspected Taliban militants in Pakistan. In recent months, scuffles between Chinese fishermen and South Korean coastal patrols and the killing of Chinese boat crews along the Mekong River in South East Asia have brought calls for retaliation.

"Saved in Sudan, detained in Egypt, beaten in South Korea and murdered on the Mekong. How can this be?" the racing car driver Wei Daofu said on Wednesday in a posting on Sina Corporation's Twitter-like Weibo service.

An estimated 75 million Chinese are expected to go overseas in 2011, putting a strain on China's diplomatic corps to track them and provide protection, the state-run Guangzhou Daily reported last week on its website. The report quoted an official with a foreign ministry think tank who listed five potential trouble spots where China has significant investments: Sudan, Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan and Myanmar.

But a key focus is Africa, where China has close ties with sometimes isolated governments, and has tens of thousands of workers building infrastructure that is often completed in return for resources.

Last year Beijing had to evacuate more than 35,000 citizens from Libya during its civil war.

The 29 now held hostage were working for Sinohydro Group, a Chinese state-owned engineering and dam company, and were snatched in Sudan's South Kordofan region. Seventeen of their colleagues escaped; another is missing and presumed dead.

Chinese internet users have taken to microblogs to voice concerns at what they feel is their government's impotence in the face of the kidnappings, their anger fuelled by a perceived disconnect between China's growing global clout and its apparent inability to safeguard its more than 800,000 citizens overseas. One article posed the question: "Is this how a superpower acts?"

The freeing late last month by the American military of an American aid worker in Somalia and her Danish colleague has magnified concerns that China has made no rescue attempts. Unlike the US and the UK, the Chinese military has no track record of overseas hostage rescues.

There is, said Mr Ding, "a huge imbalance" between the presence of Chinese workers overseas and the ability of China to project military capabilities to protect them. While some commentators in China are now calling on Beijing to become more forceful about employing its armed forces to defend citizens abroad, others say Beijing's lack of foreign bases, intelligence networks and military alliances would hamper such efforts.

Some instead take the view that, in the face of attacks, Chinese companies will have to become more cautious about operating in potentially hostile environments. When they do undertake projects, they must train staff better and lose their "naivety", said Zha Daojiong, a politics professor at Peking University who has travelled to several African countries, including Sudan, and seen the operations of Chinese businesses there.

"Chinese companies, whether large state-owned or private, need a far more rigorous set of efforts to do risk assessments. Thus far there's a great deal of naivety on the part of Chinese companies," he said.

Companies need to do more to build "the individual workers' capabilities to protect themselves, to help them identify possible sources of risk".

Yet China's need to secure resources in developing countries, and to provide employment to its own citizens means Chinese workers are likely to continue to face dangers, Mr Zha said.

He acknowledged that it is a challenge to develop the military capability to respond to hostage-taking, and concluded that there is "no easy way out".

 

dbardsley@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press