ZHENGZHOU - Li Jianguo found it hard to believe he was not in a movie when a man with a machine gun stepped out in front of his car in the middle of the night.
Li described the scene as "breathtaking and unforgettable", which is the only positive way of looking at being robbed at gunpoint while working in Tanzania. And he felt as surprised about the incident as he did fortunate to have escaped unharmed.
"I never thought that I might be robbed on that road because I was very familiar with it," said Li, 49, a project leader at the overseas department of the China Henan International Cooperation Group, which contracts international projects. It was the very road he was helping to build.
The gunman shone a flashlight in Li's face without saying a word, then snatched his mobile phone, money and watch.
"After stashing all my stuff away, the guy nudged my arm with the dull edge of his knife, motioning me to drive away," Li said. "I reported it to the local police, but there was no result."
Figures show that increasing numbers of Chinese working overseas are becoming targets of crime in recent years.
In the past five years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its departments handled more than 120,000 cases concerning consular protection and carried out 10 expatriate evacuations, according to statistics provided by the Department of Consular Affairs.
More than 16,000 Chinese companies run overseas operations, and 60 million trips abroad were made by Chinese people in 2010, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
There have been at least 12 kidnap cases involving Chinese citizens since 2007, mostly in African and Asian countries, including Sudan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia.
The bloodiest case occurred on April 24, 2007, when about 200 gunmen attacked a construction site in southeast Ethiopia where 37 Chinese and more than 120 local people were working. The attack left nine Chinese and 65 local workers dead, with another seven Chinese workers kidnapped, who were later rescued.
Another 47 Chinese workers were caught up in an attack in southern Sudan on Jan 28. Twenty-nine were abducted by gunmen while 18 managed to escape. One of the latter went missing and has been confirmed dead.
The kidnapped workers were released after 11 days and arrived back in Beijing on Feb 9.
Apart from violent attacks, Chinese overseas workers may also face risk of disease, such as malaria, traffic accidents and robbery at their foreign residences.
"Chinese companies face more and more challenges nowadays to protect the safety of their employees and assets when expanding overseas," said Zhang Chengping, vice-president of the China Henan International Cooperation Group (CHICO), which sends about 600 employees to work overseas each year.
CHICO's engineering administration manager, Hu Bingwei, said that Chinese workers overseas can also find themselves caught up in local political disputes.
"I had a narrow escape in Guinea in 2007 when the country's army rebelled and exchanged fire with the president's forces," Hu said. "I was less than 100 meters from the gunmen and felt very frightened."
"Vehicles loaded with gunmen were careering through the streets and firing at each other. I was familiar with the place and hid myself in a yard next to the military camp."
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Feb 10 called on Chinese people and companies overseas to strengthen security precautions.
"The recent abduction of Chinese workers in Sudan is a rare case, but it reflects the increasingly severe security situation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said during a news briefing.
Li Taifu, chief of the labor bureau of Xinxian county in Henan, said the local government has taken special steps to ensure their workers' safety overseas.
"Before sending workers overseas, we assess the security risks of the destination first," he said.
The county government has set up a fund of 5 million yuan ($794,000) to compensate for the risk factor.
"More than 200 workers returned home after the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March last year, and the government offered them compensation from the fund," he said. "Each worker could get between 5,000 and 20,000 yuan depending on how long they had been in Japan."
However, for those companies that have overseas business in more unstable countries, taking self-protection measures is more important.
Zhang Chengping, vice-president of CHICO, which has projects in nine African countries, said the company usually maintains a close relationship with local police and armed forces, which could protect them in cases of emergency.
"We should establish a harmonious relationship with the local government and people when we develop in Africa," Zhang said. "For example, we can help them build a primary school, or improve the working conditions of the local police."
Zhang said that Chinese companies should create job opportunities for local people in developing countries, which will help reduce any hostility toward Chinese people who they believe have taken their jobs.
"French retail giant Carrefour seldom hires French people in their Chinese branches, which should be an example for Chinese companies overseas," Zhang said.
Although overseas Chinese workers have brought back a good income for their families, the unpredictable security situation has caused a great deal of worry and upset for many.
In March, when 156 workers arrived home in Xinxian county after being rescued from Libya, there were tears of joy and relief among relatives waiting outside the railway station, remembered Liu Bing, who was picking up his friend.
"My friend Li Zhi told me that he was robbed of all of his money and valuables during the unrest in Libya," he said. "It's lucky he survived and made it home."
Liu Cheng, 32, director of labor affairs at the Xinxian-based Xinyang International Vocation Institute, said he always worries about the safety of his wife, who has been working in a food company in Japan for two years.
"Social order in Japan is good. However, the country is often hit by natural disasters," Liu said. "I felt at a total loss when I could not contact my wife for two hours during the earthquake last March."
Although he felt lonely most of the time, Liu said he would rather his wife stay in Japan for several more years because the Japanese company offered such good wages.
"My wife could earn as much as 100,000 yuan a year in Japan, three times higher than the salary in our county," Liu said. "It's worth all the worry and loneliness for us.
"You cannot get the bear paw and the fish at the same time."