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Monday, Nov. 15, 2004
Risks could Americanize Chinese behavior
By FRANK CHING
HONG KONG -- It's a dangerous world out there and, as China is finding out, it's getting more dangerous by the day. Beijing was shocked last month when terrorists believed to be linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist organization kidnapped two Chinese engineers working on a dam project in a tribal area of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan.
The kidnappers demanded that Pakistan release several militants who were being held in custody. Pakistani forces mounted a rescue attempt, in the course of which all five kidnappers were killed. One of the Chinese engineers, Wang Peng, was killed during the firefight; the other, Wang Ende, was released.
This was but the most recent of a spate of terrorist attacks on Chinese. On April 11, seven Chinese men were seized as hostages in Iraq and held for 36 hours before being released. The kidnappers apparently mistook them for Japanese.
On May 3, three Chinese were killed and nine injured while on their way to work when a remote-controlled car bomb exploded at Gwadar, in southwestern Pakistan.
And on June 10, more than 20 gunmen raided a Chinese construction site in Had Bakshi, in northern Afghanistan, killing 11 Chinese railway workers in their sleep and wounding four others.
As China becomes increasingly outward-looking and encourages private companies to operate overseas, more and more Chinese will work or travel abroad. Last year more than 20 million Chinese went overseas. As the number increases, they will inevitably face growing dangers.
Many thousands are working in Mideast countries such as Israel, Jordan, Sudan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In South Asia, they are concentrated in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Globalization, too, has created problems. In September, Spanish mobs targeted Chinese-owned shoe companies. Warehouses and a truck belonging to the Chinese were set afire, while protesters holding banners that said "Chinese out" smashed windows. Damage was estimated at close to $1 million.
Such incidents have prompted the government of President Hu Jintao, which prides itself on being "people-centered," to create a new organization to coordinate the work of safeguarding the lives and property of Chinese expatriates. The organization, within the Chinese Foreign Ministry, is called the Department of External Security Affairs.
At a press conference in July, the ministry's spokesman explained the department's work this way: "Nontraditional security factors are mounting in the current international arena. The new department is to study the changing situation. It has yet to operate in a full-fledged way, and its responsibilities are yet to be further defined."
It is believed that the department will deal with terrorism and international organized crime. The incident in Afghanistan where Chinese workers were slaughtered in their sleep spurred the government into taking action.
While China has no troops among the coalition forces in Iraq -- indeed, China does not have any troops stationed outside the country -- it is increasingly active in United Nations peacekeeping operations. These officers, too, may encounter hostile action.
In Haiti alone, China has well over 100 officers as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission.
To be sure, Chinese are not being singled out as targets of violence or kidnapping the way Americans are. While Americans are advised not to advertise their nationality when traveling abroad, Chinese often highlight their nationality to avoid being mistaken for other Asians, such as Japanese or Koreans. It is still much more dangerous to be an American abroad than to be a Chinese.
But China must realize that the more high profile a country becomes, the more likely it is to become a target of terrorists and other criminals. It must be prepared to assume the risks currently faced by the United States.
It is likely that, as China tackles problems that the Americans have long been facing, its behavior may also become more similar to that of the U.S.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.