Feb 13, 2012 02:18 PM

Build Citizen Security with Business in Africa

Twenty-nine Chinese road construction workers captured in late January by Sudanese militants were recently freed. While they were being held, though, another 25 Chinese workers were separately abducted – and later freed – in Egypt.

These kidnappings have raised concerns about how China should protect its citizens and interests overseas. They've affected China's image and tested its mettle. And they should push us to reflect on risk prevention and the behavior of China's companies, diplomats and citizens, so we can improve security for our nationals abroad.

An abduction of foreign nationals can generally fall into one of two categories. It may be a random event that has nothing to do with the hostages' nationality. Or it may be politically motivated, targeting a specific country. Based on media reports, it appears the kidnapping in Sudan by rebels with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North in South Kordofan fell into the second category, while the Egyptian incident apparently was random.

There are four reasons to suspect China was targeted in Sudan. First, the abduction occurred on opening day for a new, Chinese government-financed headquarters for the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The building's dedication marked a milestone for Sino-African relations. But the upbeat atmosphere was marred by embarrassment for the Chinese and Sudanese governments.

The governor of South Kordofan has accused the rebel group that sponsored the kidnapping of trying to sabotage public infrastructure with a clear political motive.

In addition, the workers had been warned in advance about a possible attack on their field camp. They'd been moved to safety, according to one worker who dodged the abduction, but were returned later after being told it was safe, only to be nabbed by the kidnappers.

Finally, although rebel leaders said they were not targeting China, they tried using the hostages to pressure the Sudanese government to, among other things, ease a military squeeze on them.

The safety of Chinese nationals in many developing parts of the world, not just Africa, is increasingly coming under threat. Last year, for example, tens of thousands of Chinese workers had to be evacuated during an uprising in Libya.

To some degree, citizen security incidents are inevitable results of globalization and market development. More than 1 million Chinese nationals work in businesses or as laborers in Africa, including many countries mired in political turmoil and civil strife. In recent years, our bilateral trade with the continent has been growing an average 30 percent annually.

The Chinese government and its citizens should improve their risk awareness and strengthen personal security. Beijing must immediately begin a thorough assessment of risks in countries and regions that are targets of its overseas expansion strategy, and enhance security for nationals in each area based on risk ratings.

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