A group of Chinese workers was freed Wednesday, a day after being taken hostage in Egypt, while another group of workers remained captive for a fifth day in Sudan, in separate incidents that show the dangers China faces as its worldwide presence grows.
China has developed strong economic ties in volatile nations in Africa and elsewhere, in large part to meet its growing needs for energy and other raw materials. At the same time it is facing growing pressure at home to protect citizens who fall into harm's way abroad.
In Egypt, 25 cement factory workers were grabbed Tuesday on their way to work in the northern Sinai city of Arish but were freed in good condition, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported. Their captors, Xinhua said, were Egyptians who had blocked the road outside Arish for days to demand the release of relatives detained for attacks in the Sinai years ago and to demand an end to natural gas sales to Israel.
In contrast to the quick resolution of the Egypt hostage-taking, the ordeal of 29 Chinese workers from dam and engineering firm Sinohydro Group has dragged on since their kidnapping by rebels in the Sudan’s South Kordofan region on Saturday.
Their plight has drawn heavy media attention in China, and Beijing has sent a crisis team to Sudan, where Chinese companies have investments in oil and construction projects.
“As far as we know, the Chinese workers are safe. They are safe. They are not hurt,” the head of the security team, Qiu Xuejun, told Chinese state television in Khartoum.
China also is pressuring Sudan, a diplomatic partner. A senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official summoned the Sudanese Embassy’s top diplomat on Tuesday to stress Beijing’s concern.
“The Chinese government attaches great importance to protecting overseas Chinese nationals,” Vice Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng was quoted as saying in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.
China hopes Sudan will “keep in mind the overall situation of bilateral friendship” and ensure their swift release, Xie told Sudanese Charge d’Affaires Omer Eisa Ahmed, according to the statement.
The kidnappings and Beijing’s energetic response highlight 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 authoritarian government, which wants to prove to the public that China is powerful and respected around the world.
The public has increasingly expected an effective and at times muscular defense of Chinese rights, and social media have given vent to these expectations. In recent months, scuffles between Chinese fishermen and South Korean coastal patrols and the killing of Chinese boat crew along the Mekong River in Southeast 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?” race car driver Wei Daofu said Wednesday on a posting on Sina Corporation’s Twitter-like Weibo service.
An estimated 60 million Chinese went abroad in 2010 and a projected 75 million likely did so in 2011, putting a strain on China's diplomatic corps to track them and provide protection, the state-run Guangzhou Daily reported this week on its website. The report quoted a scholar with a Foreign Ministry think tank who listed five potential trouble spots where China has significant investments: Sudan, Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan and Myanmar.
Many commentators say Chinese workers are vulnerable because Chinese companies searching for energy and other natural resources are often forced to operate in volatile parts of the world because safer areas are monopolized by Western firms.
“The issue of Chinese workers being abducted overseas is not a new one, especially in countries in Africa and Asia. The question is that China is widely engaged in a whole range of businesses overseas,” said Zhu Feng, an international affairs expert at Peking University. “More often than not, Chinese workers in politically unstable countries would become subject for exploitation by local militant groups and illegal armed forces, who want to make deals with or stage protests against the local governments.”
When Libya began splintering in the civil war that eventually overthrew Muammar Qaddafi last year, some 30,000 Chinese were working in the country. The Chinese military orchestrated a large-scale evacuation, sending ships and planes.
Xinhua said the 29 people kidnapped in Sudan were among 47 Chinese workers were caught in an attack in South Kordofan. The other 18 workers fled, and one of them remains missing, the agency said. The attack took place near Abbasiya town, 390 miles (630 kilometers) south of Khartoum.
Sudanese officials have blamed the attack on the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, a branch of a guerrilla movement that has fought various regimes in Khartoum for decades. Its members come from a minority ethnic group now in control of much of South Sudan, which became the world’s newest country six months ago in a breakaway from Sudan.
Sudan has accused South Sudan of arming pro-South Sudan groups in South Kordofan. The government of South Sudan says the accusations are a smoke screen intended to justify a future invasion of the South.
Beijing has tried to maneuver through the dispute, building ties with South Sudan, where many of the oil fields are located, while maintaining its long-standing relations with Sudan, through which pipelines run for export.