When China evacuated some 30,000 of its citizens from Libya early last year, official media fell into patriotic rapture. Television screens and newspaper front pages filled with pictures of flag-waving returnees. Xinhua, the state-run news agency, issued a commemorative DVD. The People’s Liberation Army Daily vowed that “no Chinese will ever be left behind.”
A year later, patriotic pride has turned to anger amid growing frustration over the fate of 29 Chinese nationals abducted by rebels in Sudan on Saturday. The Chinese, employees of a huge state-controlled engineering and construction company, Sinohydro, are being held by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, a ragtag militant outfit.
The drama in Sudan’s remote, oil-rich South Kordofan region — the latest in a string of attacks on Chinese working overseas — poses a delicate problem for the ruling Communist Party: how to manage the growing nationalism that it has done so much to promote. Party propaganda, pride at China’s recent achievements and a deep sense of grievance over China’s mistreatment at the hands of foreigners in the past have combined to stir demands for robust action.
“Nationalism is a double-edged sword,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University. Instead of accepting that China’s expanding economic presence abroad inevitably increases the risk of trouble, many people react with “exaggerated emotion” and increasingly “think that China must do something muscular” in response to a crisis. “This is the frustration of a rising power,” he added.
While the official media have mostly played down the hostage drama in Sudan, the Internet is abuzz with anguished cries for action and questioning of why China, despite its rising economic and military power, does not intervene more forcefully to protect citizens who get picked on abroad.
“What is the use of a large GDP and foreign exchange reserves if the government is spineless and [we] are still bullied in the same way?” asked a posting on a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
The number of Chinese nationals working overseas is not known, but the total is thought to be many hundreds of thousands. They range from employees of mammoth state oil and construction corporations, which have led China’s push into Sudan, to legions of small-time entrepreneurs and traders.
As China’s economic reach has grown, so has the danger. In Burma last year, rebels attacked a Chinese dam project in the north. A few months later, 13 Chinese sailors were killed on the Mekong River in northern Thailand. Not all attacks end in tragedy: 25 Chinese cement factory workers seized in Egypt this week were quickly freed.
Faced with criticism over the crisis in Sudan, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing on Tuesday summoned Sudan’s senior diplomat in the city and made an “urgent representation.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng told him that China “attaches great importance to protecting nationals overseas” and is “deeply shocked” by the abduction in Sudan. The ministry and a government agency responsible for state-owned companies have sent teams to Sudan to try to secure the release of the Chinese, who were working on a road project. Rebels holding them demand that Beijing use its influence to get Sudan to halt attacks by its military and to let aid reach destitute South Kordofan.
The Chinese government’s cautious response to the kidnapping has been met with widespread public scorn — and unfavorable comparisons with last week’s successful operation in Somalia by U.S. Special Operations forces to free an American aid worker, Jessica Buchanan, and a Danish colleague. The pair had been held for three months — far longer than the Chinese workers seized in Sudan — but many Chinese nonetheless bemoaned their government’s inability to take similarly robust action. The operation by Navy SEAL Team 6 — the unit that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan — left at least nine Somali kidnappers dead.
“Why are militants around the world so keen on kidnapping Chinese? . . . If they kidnap Americans, they are dead when U.S. special forces take action,” commented an angry Chinese microblogger. Another mocked China’s official doctrine of “non-interference” in the affairs of foreign states and said “we should interfere directly and rescue our citizens. Don’t let Chinese people feel they are abandoned by their motherland when they go abroad.”
China, according to officials, has invested more than $40 billion into Africa, which is China’s biggest source of imported oil after the Middle East. But as relative newcomers to the continent, Chinese companies have often had to look for opportunities in countries shunned by Western rivals. Sudan, one of China’s closest partners, is ostracized by the West. Its president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is an indicted war crimes suspect. Five Chinese oil workers were killed there in 2008, but the outrage that incident caused is nothing like the anger stirred by the recent abductions in South Kordofan.
In contrast to mostly anonymous bloggers who rebuked the government, state-controlled media highlighted diplomatic moves to settle the crisis and criticized Chinese companies for poor security arrangements.
Global Times, an often pugnaciously nationalist newspaper controlled by the People’s Daily, published an editorial urging “better protection” for Chinese working in Africa but said that instead of just looking to the state for help, Chinese companies need to pay more attention to — and pay more money for — security.
“China is not powerful enough at this time to protect every Chinese citizen scattered around the vast continent,” the paper said.
Researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.