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China In Africa, A Risky Business

Analysis: Two recent kidnappings of Chinese workers - one in Sudan and the other in Egypt - have shown China that doing business in Africa comes at a price. But with their cultural insularity and tendency to carry cash, are Chinese businessmen exposing th

A Chinese welder in Sudan (antheap)
A Chinese welder in Sudan (antheap)

BEIJING - Two recent cases of group kidnappings of Chinese workers, in Sudan and Egypt, shook China out of the glad tidings of its New Year's festivities.

The kidnapping in Sudan occurred on Jan. 28 near the town of Aba, 620 kilometers south of the capital of Khartoum. The targeted Chinese employees were working on the south Kordofan highway project. Out of 47 Chinese workers present, 29 were kidnapped by gunmen. Seventeen of them escaped and were rescued. One was shot in the head.

The incident in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula occurred three days later. Twenty-five Chinese laborers at the Lehfen cement plant were attacked on their way to work. The hijackers were local Bedouins belonging to the Svalbard Turk Tribes. Fortunately, through the mediation of the Egyptian administration, all 25 Chinese employees were released safely.

The two incidents occurring so close together raised concerns that Chinese were becoming particular targets of kidnappers in Africa. A closer look shows that other factors were involved in these cases, though the bigger picture is indeed rather worrisome.

The perpetrators of the attack in Sudan are from the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement-Northern Office (SPLM-N), which was formerly a branch of the southern Sudan ruling party. It is composed mainly of people from Northern Sudan. After the independence of Southern Sudan, they feel excluded for religious, geographical and other reasons from being Southern Sudan citizens. Refusing to lay down their arms, they became anti-government militants active in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.

According to their spokesman, the reason they kidnapped the Chinese workers was to protect themselves by using the Chinese hostages as shields from constant suppression. It was a "spur of the moment" decision. It may also be that they wanted to use the case to extend their political influence and arouse international attention to their plight. Naturally, the economic objective of obtaining high ransoms is not excluded as a motive either.

Yasir Arman, the secretary general of the SPLM-N, insisted to the foreign media that they have "no anti-Chinese intention" and that "the hostages are safe." The Chinese hostages will be released "when the situation is secure," he said.

The Sinai Peninsula case is more complex. Some members of the Svalbard tribes had been charged of "suspected complicity in terrorist attacks' for the Taba Hilton bombings of 2004, which killed 34 and injured 105.

Five of those involved are still imprisoned, though reports say that after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian authorities had promised to release them. A local mediator said the motive of the kidnapping was to trade the hostages for their arrested clansmen as well as to send an "outcry against injustice" to the international community.

A wave of Chinese expat workers

According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, more than 800,000 Chinese work overseas. This number is expected to double by the end of 2012. Non-financial sector foreign investment is $60 billion.

This kind of scale brings increasing risk to overseas operations. China is the biggest trade partner and most important investor in Africa. More than 2,000 Chinese companies engage in business on the continent. The total Sino-African trade volume has reached $150-160 billion. The increasingly large numbers of staff and new projects are likely to raise the probability that Chinese workers are exposed to dangers.

Africa is a place full of opportunities. But there are certainly risks involved with doing business there. Various tribes, religions, politics, economics, urban and rural realities, as well as divisions of the rich and the poor, make Africa a particularly complex place full of contradictions.

Even the French, British, Turkish and Lebanese who have been there for years are often involved in unexpected calamities. The Chinese are "latecomers," but ones who are entering quickly and in large numbers, which means they are ever more likely to stumble into already existing disputes.

Chinese enterprises and individuals, whether in Africa or elsewhere, have particular habits. They keep lots of cash on hand, hire mostly fellow Chinese, have a very closed management style, and use money as a solution whenever encountering unexpected problems.

For all of these reasons, Chinese workers are easy targets in foreign lands. Chinese enterprises and individuals are increasingly aware and vigilant about the dangers; and have carried out several large-scale evacuations in danger zones. Nevertheless, the events of the last few days remind us that with the expanding Chinese presence in certain places, even if we don't look for trouble, trouble can still find us.

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