On the evening of July 10 an armoured personnel vehicle carrying Chinese peacekeepers was shelled in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
Four men were injured and two were killed – making them the second and third Chinese soldiers to be killed overseas this year as part of a UN mission.
This Wednesday their bodies were flown back to Zhengzhou in Henan, the city they departed from, and received by their families as well as Yi Xiaoguang, the deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s Joint Staff. The ceremony, broadcast live on CCTV and streamed on the PLA Daily’s website, showed military personnel saluting the two flag-draped coffins as a single bugle call was blown, followed by the Chinese national anthem.
The two men have been named as 22 year-old Li Lei, a former cucumber farmer from Sichuan, and 33 year-old Yang Shupeng, a father of one from Shandong. It was their first tour of duty in Sudan.
“Li Lei and Yang Shupeng represent all the soldiers who bravely shoulder the burden of maintaining world peace. They made a selfless contribution and earned honour for our country,” Yi said after bowing to the coffins three times.
China has been contributing to UN peacekeeping missions since the early nineties but under Xi Jinping’s leadership the country has made much larger contributions, including deploying combat troops for the first time.
Xi sees it as a way to enhance China’s standing on the world stage by taking on responsibility commensurate with the country’s growing wealth and power.
It is also, say some, a chance for Chinese troops to get overseas experience which it might one day require if it fights a war beyond its borders.
China currently has 3,400 peacekeepers working overseas, including medics, engineers and troops from the construction corps. In his speech to the UN General Assembly last year Xi promised to increase that number to 8,000. China is now the ninth largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions, according to website The Diplomat.
But increased involvement in places like South Sudan and Mali, where another Chinese peacekeeper was killed in May, sits uneasily with China’s long-held policy of non-intervention in other sovereign nation’s affairs.
Many Chinese also worry about their country getting sucked into complicated conflicts on the other side of the globe.
“Chinese soldiers should only die protecting Chinese territory and Chinese people,” wrote one unhappy netizen on weibo.
“Western countries created the mess in South Sudan. Why are Chinese troops being sent to clear it up?” asked another, referring to American support for South Sudan’s breakaway from the Sudan in 2011.
South Sudan is often referred to as the “world’s newest failed state” after President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his deputy Riek Machar turned on each other in 2013, plunging the oil-rich nation into civil war.
China deployed 700 peacekeepers – including combat troops – to South Sudan in late 2014 and has since added another 400 personnel.
The PLA’s contribution in Sudan is controversial. On the one hand it was widely credited for helping create a period of relative calm. On the other, some observers say Chinese involvement borders on the unethical because China is heavily invested in Sudan.
For instance, the state-owned oil giant CNPC holds a 40% stake in a joint venture that operates in South Sudan’s vast oil fields. Oil output has now dwindled to 120,000 barrels a day. Renewed fighting between the rival factions has led the Chinese embassy as well as CNPC to evacuate all non-essential staff.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government is stressing the importance of participating in peacekeeping missions. “The Chinese military is ready to maintain world peace even if it has to pay with blood,” the PLA Daily wrote this week. “This is the responsibility a superpower has,” it added.
“Our involvement in peacekeeping corresponds to our superpower image… we can’t just back out when sad events befall us,” the People’s Daily agreed.
(Notably, this is one of the rare occasions the state media has categorised China as a superpower.)
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