China is bringing workers home from Syria, its Commerce Minister said on Wednesday, in an apparent attempt to avoid a repeat of last year's eleventh-hour rescue of Chinese nationals from Libya when violence engulfed the country.
Only about 100 Chinese workers will be left behind to guard work camps and equipment, Minister Chen Deming said, without giving figures for the total number of Chinese citizens or projects in Syria.
“The Chinese government and ministries must seriously undertake the protection of Chinese firms’ production and projects overseas, and the protection of the lives of Chinese citizens overseas, especially engineering teams,” Chen told reporters.
Beijing sent an envoy to Damascus this week, even as closed-door meetings were held at the United Nations to discuss a U.S.-drafted resolution urging an end to the Syrian government's increasingly lethal crackdown on a year-long revolt.
China joined Russia to veto previous U.N. resolutions on Syria in October and February, moves which drew fierce international condemnation.
China was caught off guard last year when a civil war erupted in Libya. Nearly 36,000 of its nationals exited the country, some by hastily chartered ships, while others fled by foot or by bus into Egypt.
Chinese workers were involved in Libyan projects worth $17 billion, Chen said, describing those projects as primarily residential construction projects, in or near Libyan cities.
His remarks represent some of the most detailed comments so far by Beijing officials regarding Chinese interests in Libya.
“The tragedy is that these projects were badly damaged during the instability, the civil war and the foreign intervention,” Chen said.
“So we are negotiating with the Libyan government, we hope that the Libyan government can actually begin compensation for these projects in accordance with international norms.”
China is evaluating the security situation in Libya, he said, but does not yet deem it safe enough for work on Chinese projects to resume.
China’s growing appetite for resources and Chinese firms’ competitiveness in overseas road, dam and construction tenders has made its workers more vulnerable to threats.
In January, 29 Chinese workers were kidnapped and one killed by rebels in Sudan, as part of their dispute with the Khartoum government.
In recent years, Chinese workers have also been targeted in Egypt, Niger and Pakistan, among other countries.