China’s Africa Problem

In various attacks, including this week’s kidnapping of 29 workers in Sudan, China has failed to flex its military muscle to rescue its own people. Is this how a superpower acts?

02.02.12 11:02 PM ET

The last time Hou Xianming heard from his girlfriend in Sudan was Saturday afternoon, when she called to let him know she was returning to her office before heading to the airport for a much-needed holiday back home in China. Then, suddenly, the line went dead. He called back—no answer. So began a series of sleepless nights and frantic days as Hou learned that 29 Chinese nationals working for a road-building company, including his partner, Li Yan, 24, had been abducted by Sudanese rebels in the volatile state of South Kordofan. They have yet to be rescued.

The crisis grew Tuesday, when word spread that Bedouin tribesman in Egypt’s Sinai region had captured 25 Chinese workers whom they hoped to exchange for Egyptian prisoners. While the workers were soon released, the two incidents have triggered growing frustration among many Chinese who feel their country’s ability to defend its own people is seriously lagging behind its soaring economic power.

To deal with the abducted workers held in Sudan, China on Tuesday sent a crisis-strategy group there to assist in the negotiations with the rebels. But the news did not inspire much confidence online. Some Chinese prefer to see the kind of lethal response sometimes taken by the United States and other countries when faced with a hostage crisis.

“If it was the United States or Russia, they would have airdropped in special commandos by now,” read one post on the popular Chinese microblog Sina Weibo.

“What’s the use of sending in a working group, to send greetings?” read another. “If you are really strong, send in troops.”

Yet this attitude runs counter to China’s current and so-far successful international strategy to boost its power, which focuses on winning friends economically, rather than making enemies with weapons. Much of this is linked to Chinese companies investing abroad, especially in the developing world, where Chinese laborers have flooded countries to build up infrastructure, palaces, and government buildings in exchange for valuable natural resources that fuel China’s jet-speed development. By the end of last year, more than 800,000 Chinese were working abroad, twice as many as in 2002, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

Chinese working abroad have faced increasing danger in recent years, as their work has led them into the heart of ongoing internal conflicts. Last year, as chaos engulfed Libya, 35,000 Chinese were evacuated by Chinese ships. Several months later in Pakistan, suspected Taliban militants kidnapped Chinese engineers and then attacked another group of engineers in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan, home to abundant natural-gas resources. In October, 13 Chinese sailors were brutally murdered after their two cargo ships—laden with 920,000 methamphetamine pills worth $6 million, according to a recent Reuters report—sailed into Thai waters, prompting the Chinese military to send gunboats to patrol the area.

The frequent stories of Chinese in danger abroad are triggering renewed debate over how China should adjust its international strategy, and Beijing is keeping a close eye on public opinion. “The Chinese government does not like to appear weak internationally, especially when it comes in the form of failing to protect the lives of those placed abroad by the state,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, the director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. Indeed, passionately anti-government comments swiftly disappeared from the site as censors sought to limit the political damage.

But before Beijing can win this ongoing battle domestically through propaganda, it must drastically improve its security operations to protect and prepare Chinese citizens abroad for the threats that are part of daily life in certain regions, says Lieberthal. And that will take years.

“These are places Western firms won’t operate in because it’s too risky, and now China is beginning to realize those fears are well grounded—and that people die,” he says.

The state-run media is taking a pragmatic stance on the situation, careful not to raise expectations too high while supporting Beijing’s engagement with Africa. “China is not powerful enough at this time to protect every Chinese citizen scattered around the vast continent,” said an editorial in the nationalistic newspaper Global Times. “No other powers have the same number of nationals living in underdeveloped and turbulent regions as China. Ensuring their safety is a major challenge.”

Yet other Chinese media outlets are pushing the line in the debate, arguing for a much more forceful strategy in the future. According to an article in China Business News on Wednesday, Mei Xinyu, a researcher with the Ministry of Commerce, advocated that it’s time the Chinese military started getting involved abroad—a sharp departure from the past and one sure to unsettle the U.S. “A big country with increasing overseas interests has to protect its business with its sword,” he wrote. “Unilaterally sticking to peace will only encourage further kidnapping.”

In other words, until the country decides to change tactics and save its own workers with guns rather than with negotiations, those 29 hostages may continue to be held captive, their phone calls going unanswered.