Chinese need greater protection overseas

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2007, 12:00am

As China extends its global economic reach, a rising number of mainland entrepreneurs, engineers and other workers now travel to faraway countries in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in search of business opportunities. The deliberate killing of three Chinese engineers in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday is the latest reminder of the perils they face while operating in volatile regions whose politics, culture and language they scarcely understand.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been under pressure from Beijing to take measures to protect Chinese nationals after students from the Red Mosque in Islamabad last month kidnapped six mainland women from an acupuncture clinic they claimed was actually a brothel. Even though China is Pakistan's biggest military supplier and one of its most important investors, the military crackdown against the mosque, long-delayed but inevitable, was mainly driven by internal politics rather than external pressure. The mosque has been terrorising Islamabad for six months with a fundamentalist anti-vice campaign aimed at carrying out sharia law in the country's capital and has antagonised the general population. So the women's kidnapping was probably just the trigger point.

Still, the Chinese engineers, it now appears, were murdered by Islamic militants in retaliation for the siege of the mosque. They were innocent bystanders caught up in the cauldron of the country's explosive politics. They are not the first and, unfortunately, are unlikely to be the last. Since 2004, at least six other engineers from the mainland have been killed in Pakistan's southwestern region of Baluchistan under violent circumstances.

While these dangers confront businesspeople and technicians of all types and ethnicities, mainlanders may find themselves especially ill-prepared to deal with cultural nuances and complexities in foreign lands. Nowadays, on flights to Africa and the Indian subcontinent, it is not unusual to hear half the passengers speaking Putonghua. The planes take them to Ivory Coast, Angola, Zambia, Nigeria and Ethiopia. The passengers may be starting their own business or launching big projects involving infrastructure, mining and energy exploration for Chinese state-owned firms. Some mainland airlines are planning direct flights to African destinations.

While mainland businesspeople have long been admired for their gumption, China has regularly been criticised in the west for doing business and providing aid, usually with few conditions attached, to countries with authoritarian or dictatorial regimes.

Beijing tells its people it enjoys excellent relations with these countries because it does not interfere in the internal affairs of another nation. They are led to believe their businesses are welcome. This may be true on a state-to-state level but conditions on the ground are very different. This year alone, mainland workers have been kidnapped by pirates off the coast of Somalia and seized from or killed at oilfields in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Chinese technicians on a telecommunications project were been held for ransom in Nigeria before being released in January.

It is not enough for the Foreign Ministry to express outrage and call on the relevant friendly government to protect Chinese nationals. It must now work more closely with mainland companies, especially state-owned ones, to educate executives about possible dangers and develop crisis management to protect workers. This is, after all, the way most world powers and efficient multinational corporations operate.