Only the most adventurous would see a posting to South Kordofan as an attractive opportunity. Located along Sudan’s border with its new neighbour South Sudan, the region has been the scene of ongoing fighting with southern rebels in a conflict that has forced thousands to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
Late last month 29 Chinese construction workers in the region were kidnapped by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North). The captives, employees of Power Construction Corporation of China, were constructing a road through South Kordofan for the Sudanese government in a $63 million project financed by the Export-Import Bank of China, reports the New York Times. But the SPLM-N says the new road would improve access into the area from the north, supporting Khartoum’s push against them. On Tuesday, the hostages were released after more than a week of captivity.
The kidnapping comes after China became an arbitrator in a disagreement over oil between Sudan and its new neighbour (South Sudan became independent in July 2011). At secession, South Sudan kept most of the former country’s oil resources but is landlocked and relies on Sudan’s infrastructure – pipelines and ports – to export it. The disagreement relates to how much money South Sudan should pay Sudan for transporting its oil. South Sudan has halted oil exports until a deal is reached.
China’s involvement in the dispute shows that its traditional policy of non-intervention is becoming stretched as its investments reach further into the wider world.
In this case, the local rebels also believe that the Chinese have the influence to help them achieve their goals – even if kidnapping is the only way to gain Beijing’s attention. SPLM-N negotiators met the Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia in Addis Ababa last week, asking him to pressure Khartoum to cease military operations in the area, as well as support demands for an international investigation into war crimes conducted by Sudan.
“We don’t have any problem with the Chinese, we are not at war with them; but it will be better if they can help with this,” they told reporters.
Just days after the kidnapping in Sudan, more Chinese citizens were then taken hostage in Egypt. Bedouin tribesmen seized 25 cement factory workers in Sinai, demanding the release of prisoners from Egyptian jails. The hostages were freed a day after their capture.
The two incidents have stirred debate in the Chinese media about doing more to protect Chinese citizens overseas, especially as more workers take jobs on infrastructure and energy projects in politically unstable regions. The People’s Daily called for the authorities to “deeply study the issue and form a diplomatic protection theory for the new era”.
Netizens have been more direct in calling for action to resolve kidnapping cases. The New York Times cited one frustrated posting on China’s Twitter-equivalent Sina Weibo saying that the US “would have dropped in commandos by now”, while the Financial Times noted that another contributor was making the link to Chinese humiliations of the past. “Now we have an aircraft carrier, fourth-generation war planes and the second-highest gross domestic product,” he asked. “Do we still have to tolerate this?”
Some of the criticism of inactivity from Beijing seems unfair. During the Libyan civil war last year, tens of thousands of Chinese workers were flown to safety.
But for the kidnapping cases one problem is that Chinese officials are more likely to pay ransoms, Bonnie Glaser, a fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Bloomberg. “China’s an easy target,” she warned. “They want to defuse these situations quickly, they’re willing to pay and that just emboldens people to go after their workers. And their workers are everywhere.” The Guardian estimates around a million Chinese work in Africa (for more on this subject see WiC131).
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