Fri, February 03, 2012
China > China & World

New threats abroad

2012-02-03 00:58:40 GMT2012-02-03 08:58:40(Beijing Time)  Global Times

Dai Jidong, one of the 17 workers from the Sinohydro Group who narrowly escaped abduction by Sudanese rebels, was still trembling while recounting his breathtaking experience, which happened only days ago.

"On Saturday morning, we returned to our camp tired after hiding from rebels the previous night. When we were about to go to bed, we heard gunshots and artillery fire," Dai told the Chengdu Evening News. "Some 50 minutes later, the gunshots weakened. My roommates and I jumped out of the window, hopped over the fence and fled into the woods."

Dai and other workers hid in the woods for almost two days. They had no food or water, and had to eat wild fruits to survive.

"Two other workers and I decided to flee in the middle of the night. We crawled on all fours most of the way. It took us five hours to arrive at the Sudanese government's army camp more than 20 kilometers away," Dai said.

Dai was lucky to have escaped, however, 29 workers, including his cousin, were still being held by the abductors, foreign ministry officials told the Xinhua News Agency yesterday.

Three days after the abduction in Sudan, 25 workers from a Chinese cement factory in Egypt's Sinai region were kidnapped by a local tribe who demanded local authorities free their tribesmen from prison. The workers were freed the following day.

The two cases, along with increasing number of similar cases in recent years, have highlighted the risks for overseas Chinese workers, as the country has extended its investments and presence into some of the world's most unstable regions.

Observers note China's "going global" strategy features enterprises as pioneers, which has left those companies and its employees vulnerable, and have called for the government to come up with a strategy to better protect its citizens overseas.

Troubled security

An engineer surnamed Niu working at Chinese telecommunications equipment provider ZTE's branch in Egypt told the Global Times that the recent kidnapping cases had gotten to his nerves.

Living in a high-tech industrial development zone in northwestern Cairo for the past two years, Niu said local security is fine, but the security in some places has become poorer since the Arab Spring last year.

"Four months ago, my colleagues and I went to Telecom Egypt for a meeting. The workers went on a strike that day and encircled the building, calling for the resignation of the company's executives, and we weren't able to leave until the evening," Niu recalled.

He also said that his colleague had witnessed mobs firing shots at a police bureau in Arish, a poverty-stricken region in Sinai bordering Israel.

Niu said the troubling state of security has frightened some Chinese engineers out of applying for posts in Egypt, but insisted he would stay for economic reasons.

"The cost of living is too high in China compared to Egypt. Besides my daily spending, I can save a considerable amount of money here, which would be almost impossible for me were I to return to China," Niu said.

Zhang Zuohe, general manager of China State Construction's Libya branch, admitted money is the main reason workers brave their way to overseas projects.

The average annual income of a construction worker working in Libya is 110,000 yuan ($17,300), almost double the amount a worker in China could receive, according to Zhang.

By the end of 2011, 812,000 Chinese laborers worked overseas, more than 90 percent of whom were in Asia and Africa, according to data from the Ministry of Commerce.

Corporate solution

Zhang's company has hired more than 9,000 Chinese workers, all of whom were evacuated from Libya early last year in China's largest overseas evacuation operation.

Based in Benghazi, where rebel forces had been active, Zhang's company had been cautious in security, putting a lot of effort into establishing ties with the local government, police authorities and tribes.

"We hired some 40 security guards and had 40 police secure our camp," Zhang said, adding that Chinese workers were not allowed to leave the camp alone and had to ask the highest-level staff for permission to leave.

According to Zhang, before the workers leave for Libya, the company trains them on Islamic customs, expressions for daily use and safety precautions.

Li Juefei, who worked at another construction company's Ethiopia branch, told the Global Times that in recent years, his company had added counter-abduction courses into it's training of overseas staff.

Govt strategy needed

Industry insiders are saying that Sinohydro should be blamed for the abduction of its workers due to its poor safety awareness, citing that all the privately-owned Chinese enterprises had withdrawn from the troubled South Kordofan state given recent unrest there.

China International Contractors Association told the Global Times that over the years it has suggested the government improve precautionary mechanisms for political risks in overseas markets and reinforce the consular protection of overseas citizens on behalf of enterprises operating overseas, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce have been working on.

The association has also tried to combine the strengths of enterprises to protect workers by forming an alliance with several domestic and foreign insurance companies, medical service institutions and rescue agencies.

Jiang Yong, director of the Center for Economic Security Studies at the China Institute for Contemporary International Studies, said that unlike developed nations, enterprises in China are taking the lead in the country's "going global" strategy.

"American companies' interests overseas are protected by the US intelligence service, military and para-military forces," said Jiang, calling for Beijing to improve its support of enterprises in a similar way.

He also noted that a strategy should be created to help guide companies looking to go global.

"Mutual benefits and collective victories should be the key words of the strategy, in which Chinese companies should further distance themselves from the behaviors of the colonists of old, and help create growth and jobs in Africa," Jiang said.

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