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China Workers Easy Prey as Growth Sends More Citizens Abroad

China Workers Easy Prey as Growth Sends More Citizens Abroad
A Chinese migrant worker plasters a wall at Timor Plaza, East Timor's first ever shopping mall, in Dili, East Timor, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011. Photographer: Daniel J. Groshong/Bloomberg

The capture of 54 Chinese citizens in Egypt and Sudan signals growing concern for China as its economic power expands abroad and it sends more people to work on infrastructure projects in dangerous places overseas.

Rebels in Sudan seized 29 Chinese hostages Jan. 28 after they attacked the camp of a Chinese road-building company, and 25 Chinese nationals working at a cement plant in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula were released after being detained yesterday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The kidnappings reflect the growing global reach of China’s companies and banks as they invest in projects such as roads, cellphone networks and ports. Lacking a military to project power globally, the Chinese often pay ransoms to free hostages, said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“China’s an easy target,” Glaser said in a telephone interview. “They want to defuse these situations quickly, they’re willing to pay and that just emboldens people to go after their workers. And their workers are everywhere.”

The incidents in Sudan and Egypt are likely to spur more calls inside China for an expanded capability by the People’s Liberation Army for overseas missions, she said. China’s defense budget this year is 601.2 billion yuan ($95.3 billion), second only to the U.S.

‘Not Powerful Enough’

“China is not powerful enough at this time to protect every Chinese citizen scattered around the vast continent” of Africa, the state-owned Global Times newspaper wrote in an editorial yesterday.

China’s Going Out Policy, meant to encourage more investment abroad, preceded a rise in the number of workers overseas. China had 812,000 workers abroad at the end of 2011, double the number from 2002, the Ministry of Commerce said Jan. 18. Outbound investment excluding the financial sector rose 1.8 percent in 2011 to $60 billion, the ministry said.

China evacuated 35,860 of its citizens from Libya during the war there, Xinhua said. Four Chinese citizens were kidnapped by rebels in Colombia in June.

“Chinese companies tend to operate in environments where others dare not go, hence it may appear as if they are more likely to be kidnapped,” said Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s foreign policy.

Reluctant to Deploy

Even if China had military teams to rescue hostages in places such as Sudan, it may be reluctant to deploy them out of fear a botched rescue operation would reflect poorly on the leadership in Beijing and on the PLA, Glaser said.

The Chinese in Sudan were attacked by rebels near the town of Al-Abbasiya over the weekend. Vice Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng summoned Sudan’s charge d’affaires in Beijing yesterday to express concern about the safety of the Chinese workers, Xinhua said, citing a foreign-ministry statement.

A team dispatched by China arrived in Sudan yesterday, Xinhua reported earlier today. The team includes members from the Foreign Ministry and the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission to help the embassy in a rescue operation and speak with Sudanese officials, Xinhua reported. The commission is an administrative organization that holds the state’s shares of companies including China National Petroleum Corp., or CNPC, which drills for oil in Sudan.

Sudan Fighting

Fighting in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states has intensified since South Sudan seceded in July from its northern neighbor. President Umar al-Bashir’s government is battling members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, which was part of South Sudan’s ruling party until the south’s independence and is banned by Sudan.

South Sudan took control of about three-quarters of Sudan’s output of 490,000 barrels of oil a day when it gained independence. The crude is pumped mainly by CNPC, Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd.

China imported about 250,000 barrels a day, or more than 65 percent of total Sudanese oil exports, accounting for 5 percent of the nation’s imports in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Energy Department.

In Egypt, the 25 freed Chinese workers were in good condition after being held yesterday by local Bedouin tribesmen, Xinhua said, citing Ma Jianchun, the commercial affairs counselor at the embassy in Cairo. The tribesmen had demanded the release of relatives detained by Egyptian authorities on suspicion of being involved in attacks, Xinhua said.

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