Chinese, overseas and insecure

Posted on September 5, 2012


The picture shows the February 2, 2012, Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, a worker is carrying iron panel.

As the number of Chinese citizens working, studying and traveling overseas rises in line with China’s growing global clout, the government is under mounting pressure to provide for their off-shore security. As Beijing grapples with how to respond, it must balance domestic calls for help with foreign perceptions that its economic expansion into developing countries is imperial in nature.

Officially, China sends about five million workers and 350,000 students abroad each year; unofficially, taking into account unofficial migration, that figure is undoubtedly much higher. With its economy spreading deeper into the developing world, including into Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Chinese citizens increasingly find themselves in situations where neither the Chinese nor local governments have been able to respond adequately to crises in their host countries.

The lack of a comprehensive strategy to protect Chinese citizens and companies in times of tumult has opened the government to criticism, particularly among Chinese bloggers who have pilloried Beijing’s perceived inaction and ineffectiveness. Many have questioned the government’s self-proclaimed “superpower” status, noting in comparison that the United States has often deployed force to rescue its citizens in crisis situations abroad.

In January 2012, for instance, US Special Forces carried out a nighttime operation to free an American and a Danish aid worker held by Somali pirates. In another dramatic rescue, in 2009, three US Special Forces snipers killed three Somali pirates with single shots from long distances to rescue American sailor Richard Phillips, who was being held for ransom on a ship off the coast of Somalia.

Such operations carry heavy political risks that China is clearly trying to avoid, especially in light of widespread criticism in the West of China’s resource extraction driven approach to Africa. If China deployed its military in a rescue operation there, it could backfire badly by empowering critics with evidence to support their claims about China’s supposed imperialist intentions in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

The largest mission that China has deployed to protect its workers came in early 2011, when it sent four military transport planes and a guided-missile frigate to rescue thousands of Chinese citizens working in Libya after the eruption of anti-government protests and rebellion. Although it was purely a rescue mission with no shots fired – unlike the US Special Forces deadly missions against Somali pirates – it laid bare China’s capabilities and deficiencies in projecting power far from home.

Military operations in far-flung theaters are still logistically difficult for China, not least because it lacks the extensive intelligence networks in developing countries the US and Europe have taken decades to build. Instead, China has historically relied on international organizations to help its citizens abroad. In 2007, for example, the International Committee of the Red Cross helped negotiate the release of seven Chinese oil workers held hostage in Ethiopia.

China has sought to reduce the risk to its citizens by building close relationships with governments in countries where it has major investments. This has not been an easy strategy. China tried to maintain close relations with South Sudan, which became an independent country in July 2011, as well as with Sudan, the country from which South Sudan broke away. This diplomatic position became virtually untenable as the two countries became embroiled in a dispute over oil resources, with China suddenly stuck in the middle.

In 2012, two separate kidnappings in which more than 20 Chinese workers were taken hostage in the Sinai, Egypt and South Kordofan, South Sudan, underscored China’s inability or reluctance to respond with force. These particular cases made headlines in China about the plight of their citizens abroad. There were other well-publicized cases in 2011, including the still unresolved murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River in northern Thailand.

There have been numerous other less-publicized crises involving overseas Chinese citizens, often motivated by local resentment of Chinese investments or management of those investments. They include the kidnapping of four Chinese oil workers in Caqueta, Colombia in January 2011; the evacuation of 300 dam workers from Myanmar’s Kachin State due to fighting between the government and rebels in June 2011; and the burning to death of four Chinese workers in an arson attack in South Africa in November 2011.

Most recently, on August 5, Zambian miners killed their Chinese manager by pushing a mine trolley at him during a riot at a coal mine there. In 2011, two Chinese managers at the same mine were accused of attempted murder after they fired on miners during a similar pay dispute, but Zambia dropped those charges.

Investment-led migration
The growth in crises for overseas Chinese is related to several push factors. First, China is now operating in more countries than ever before. More than 1 million Chinese are in Africa, up from about 100,000 less than a decade ago. Similarly, trade between Africa and China reached US$120 billion in 2011, from less than $20 billion in 2001.

Second, China’s new development strategy focuses specifically on emerging markets, with the Chinese government often providing tacit support to companies to invest in geopolitically insecure regions where other countries’ companies dare not to venture. For instance, state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation has signed a $7 billion contract with the government of Afghanistan to develop three oil fields along the Amu Darya river in northern Afghanistan. There have been credible reports, however, that China, or its Afghan partners, had to pay off Taliban insurgents to exploit the oil fields, or risk reprisals.

In Karachi, Pakistan, a motorcycle bomb exploded outside the Chinese consulate on July 12. Shortly afterwards, a spokesperson for a group called the Lashkar-e-Balochistan (Army of Balochistan) claimed responsibility for the bomb, saying that “China and other foreign powers are making agreements with Pakistan that are not acceptable to the Baloch people.”

The group added that “China and other foreign companies should stop fleecing Balochistan’s resources and should immediately exit the province otherwise personnel and infrastructure would continue to be targeted in the province.” The threat highlights the dangers Chinese nationals face when operating in such politically volatile environments.

Third, Chinese companies usually require workers to live in special encampments where their security staff is often inexperienced, underequipped and undermanned in order to cut costs. In contrast, many Western companies place their staff in better-financed, high-security encampments, which may remove the staff from the local community and appear segregationist but nonetheless tends to provide greater security.

Fourth, transnational armed gangs and criminal syndicates have apparently found that overseas Chinese laborers are an easy target for ransom, partly due to the relatively low levels of security in which Chinese workers reside. In the most unusual example, on August 25, Angola deported 37 Chinese nationals who were allegedly targeting other Chinese businessmen for kidnappings for ransom.

Maintaining a soft footprint is essential for China to preserve the now substantial investments it has made in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. As threats rise to China’s overseas citizens and investments, attention will focus more sharply on Beijing’s response, including its willingness to use force to protect its citizens and commercial interests.

If China does begin to project power to protect its workers, it will inevitably lead Western countries to question whether Beijing has abandoned its “non-interference” policy in international relations, which dates back decades and China seeks to preserve today.

On the other hand, China faces rising domestic pressure to protect its overseas citizens and interests. In May, Chinese policymakers took an important initial step when they issued new regulations for the management of foreign labor service enterprises to protect their overseas workers. The regulations, which will cover only a portion of China’s overseas citizens, were officially implemented on August 1.

Significantly they emphasize a “soft” tact towards protecting workers, rather than a “hard” approach that would involve deployment of the military. One notable provision in Article 12 of the regulations requires companies to arrange for laborers to gain knowledge of the foreign languages where they work, as well as for companies to teach their workers about the relevant laws, religion, and customs of the host country before deploying them abroad.

Jacob Zenn