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Safety worries mount for Chinese traveling abroad

By He Na in Beijing, Li Xiang in Paris and Chen Jia in San Francisco | China Daily | Updated: 2013-07-24 11:25

 Safety worries mount for Chinese traveling abroad

Chinese and African men, employed by Sinohydro, a Chinese State-owned hydropower engineering and construction company, return to their dormitories at the end of the working day in the port city of Bata, Equatorial Guinea. Abdelhak Senna / AFP

 Safety worries mount for Chinese traveling abroad

A worker is flown home to China for treatment after being injured in an explosion in the Republic of the Congo. The man was one of 31 Chinese workers injured the accident. Wang Minjie / Xinhua

Safety worries mount for Chinese traveling abroad

Recent incidents a cause for concern, report He Na in Beijing, Li Xiang in Paris and Chen Jia in San Francisco.

A series of incidents involving Chinese citizens overseas has shocked the country and prompted public concern about the safety of Chinese people when traveling abroad.

Six students from the nation were attacked at a house in Hostens, southwestern France, on the night of June 15 by three local men who had been drinking. One of the students was hit in the face with a bottle, leaving her with injuries that required hospital treatment.

Two Chinese nationals and a Chinese-American were among nine foreign climbers killed by gunmen at a base camp near Nanga Parbat, one of the world's highest mountains, in Pakistan's northern territory of Gilgit on June 23.

Two days later, four Chinese were murdered in a knife attack at a bakery in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. The victims, three men and a woman, were hacked and stabbed repeatedly by masked assailants. One of the victims is believed to have been decapitated and the others dismembered.

Given the circumstances - the attack in Gilgit was the first of its kind in the region, while Port Moresby has a justified reputation as a dangerous place - it's open to debate whether ethnicity played a role in the incidents or if the victims were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, the wave of attacks has led to a growing perception that Chinese nationals aren't safe overseas.

The continuing rise in living standards means millions of Chinese travel overseas every year, for business, investment, work, tourism and study. Others leave for good via emigration programs. At the same time, the number of violent incidents involving Chinese nationals overseas has also increased.

A narrow escape

Teng Fei, a project manager at a large IT enterprise, has just finished a six-and-a-half year stint working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He said the experience of living and working in those two volatile countries has sharpened his appreciation of "safety".

"People who live in peaceful places simply don't have a sense of war, but during my stay in Afghanistan, I was constantly aware that the conflict was so close," said the 33-year-old, who now works in the Netherlands.

Teng recalled being just a block away from the scene of a violent attack. Three masked insurgents attacked a polling station during a presidential election and exchanged gunfire with US soldiers. "We could hear the gunshots clearly. Cold sweat ran from my forehead. I was terrified," he said.

In addition to the daily threat to life and limb, Teng and his colleagues often fell victim to fraud and robbery.

"Colleagues often said they had been cheated by bogus policeman. They stop you in the street and ask to check your passport as an opportunity to grab your wallet," he said.

One of Teng's colleagues had a brush with death when a thief who had snatched his bag thought the man was about to fight back.

"The move incensed the thief, who pulled a gun and opened fire. Luckily, the bullet hit a laptop computer my colleague was carrying and apart from a large hole burned in his clothes, he was uninjured," Teng said.

Although he had a narrow escape, Teng's colleague was so severely traumatized that he remains too frightened to leave home alone after dark, even in China.

Dianne Yan, a Chinese student at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, said she tries to avoid traveling alone after 11 pm and always keeps between $40 and $60 in her purse as a survival strategy in the event of robbery or attack. Her parents and many older Chinese immigrants advised Yan to give the money to the assailant and say, "I didn't see your face. Just take what you want and go away please."

Changing times

Data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that more than 83 million residents of the Chinese mainland traveled overseas in 2012, a massive increase from the 200,000 that went abroad in 1978.

The ministry's annual report on China's development of outbound tourism shows the number of outbound tourists is expected to reach 94.3 million this year.

Moreover, there are more than 20,000 Chinese-invested enterprises overseas.

On average, the ministry and Chinese embassies and consulates around the world deal with about 100 consular protection cases every day.

Xia Xueluan, a sociology professor at Peking University, said that in the 1980s very few Chinese had the opportunity to travel overseas and most who did were selected representatives of various industries.

However, times have changed. "Nowadays, as long as you have money, you can go abroad. But examples of poor behavior by some Chinese tourists, such as speaking loudly, queue jumping or vandalizing historic relics, often raise eyebrows among the locals," he said. Indeed, a 15-year-old Chinese tourist was recently forced to issue an apology after defacing the 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple in Egypt by carving his name into the stone.

This sort of unpleasant behavior not only tarnishes the image of China overseas, but can also spark conflict with annoyed locals.

Although Xia believes that most of the incidents are isolated cases, he pointed out that Chinese tourists often leave themselves open to attack; for example, it's well known that many Chinese refuse to use credit or debit cards overseas. As a result, they carry large amounts of cash on their person, making them easy targets for thieves.

Moreover, Xia said some of the attacks are a result of the current international situation.

"Generally speaking, the world is a peaceful place. However, in some parts, local conflicts, terrorism, regional wars and separatism are always present. With an increasing number of Chinese traveling abroad, it's really hard to predict which corner of the world might prove to be dangerous," he said.

"But in some regions, organizations that promote anti-Chinese sentiment are on the rise, and we need to be aware of that," he added.

Pan Wei, director of Peking University's Center for Chinese and Global Affairs, said media reports have misled the public to some extent by giving an impression that Chinese people are not safe overseas.

"I don't think the situation is as bad as the media reports suggest. If we look at the number of Chinese going abroad every year and the crime rates in the countries where the attacks have happened, we find that the number of cases is within the normal range," he said.

"These unfortunate cases are inevitable. China's economy is becoming more integrated with the global economy, and as more people travel abroad, it's natural that various problems will arise. But we also need to be aware that similar attacks - robbery, injury and murder - also happen to people from other countries," he added.

Pan said one solution would be for people to learn more about the places they plan to visit before setting out, which might help them avoid potentially dangerous incidents.

"People's limited knowledge of foreign countries, the laws, customs and religious taboos, are sometimes to blame," he said.

Shady business

Meanwhile, companies or people who engage in shady business overseas are playing an extremely high-risk game, according to Pan, referring to a series of incidents centered around the eviction of Chinese gold miners from the African country of Ghana.

Hundreds of miners, mostly from South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, were hunted down by local tribesmen enraged by their illegal gold mining activity, and now face deportation.

"If you choose to make money by illegal means, you need to be prepared to pay the price if anything happens," Pan said.

Li Wei, director of the Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said there's not enough evidence to prove that Chinese are specifically targeted by criminals or terrorists, and most of the reported cases have been isolated incidents.

"But so many Chinese travel overseas that it's very difficult to ensure the safety of each and every person," he said.

However, Li admitted that criminals often regard Chinese as "low-cost" victims because of a perception that they will surrender their valuables and cash rather than fight back.

"Chinese people must learn to fight for their rights and report these incidents to the police," he said.

Li said northern European countries, many of which have been hit hard by the sovereign debt crisis and high rates of unemployment, have seen a rising number of crimes.

Meanwhile, in many areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America conflicts between tribes and ethnic groups are usually the main cause of instability. Many Chinese companies overseas are being offered a higher level of protection as governments seek to attract a greater volume of inward investment. The companies are also boosting their own internal security measures.

Li Jun, who works at a branch of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in Indonesia, said the staff attend security meetings almost every week and adhere to strict safety disciplines.

"To guarantee our safety, we are not allowed to walk around without the company of local colleagues. In addition, we often attend safety classes arranged by the local police, where we are taught tactics to use in emergency situations."

Safety precautions

"When under attack, tears are not enough to save lives," said Peking University's Xia.

"The central government should formulate a mechanism, including prevention, rescue and relief measures, to ensure the safety of Chinese nationals overseas," he said.

China's economic rise has seen a marked improvement in the country's international standing and, in many cases, diplomatic channels have played a key role in protecting the rights of Chinese citizens in foreign countries.

Song Ronghua, a visiting professor of international relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, called on the government to improve consular protection by increasing investment in training to provide the staff with greater understanding of the law, finance, and economics.

According to anti-terrorism expert Li Wei, governments use tourist warnings as the primary means of keeping their nationals safe, but he urged tourists and businesspeople to maintain regular contact with the local police and Chinese embassies and consulates.

Wang Yuan, first secretary of the consular office at the Chinese Embassy in France, said the security situation in the country has deteriorated in recent years and the embassy has forged a close working relationship with the gendarmerie. "They exchange information with us and inform us about the progress of cases involving Chinese nationals," he said.

Wang suggested that well-off Chinese in France should avoid ostentatious displays of wealth and not carry large amounts of cash or top-end clothing, watches, bags or jewelry.

District Attorney George Gascn said the Chinese form one of San Francisco's largest immigrant communities, but many new immigrants have language and culture barriers. They need to improve their understanding of the US legal system and services, he said.

Li Chunfu, from the Consulate-General of China in San Francisco, said, "We have called on local Chinese to improve their awareness of security and watch out for their neighbors. We have also encouraged them to seek help from us should any unpleasant or dangerous situations arise."

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