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Protecting citizens outside country
By Xing Zhigang (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-06-11 09:16

Little more than two decades ago when the closed-door policy still prevailed in China, there was simply no such thing as Chinese citizens facing dangers and difficulties abroad.

Zheng Moguang, one of the Chinese engineers wounded in a bomb attack in Pakistan on May 3, receives immediate treatment after returning to Beijing by air on May 14. On May 3, three Chinese citizens were killed and nine injured when an unoccupied car exploded near their bus in Gwadar, about 500 kilometres west of Karachi, where hundreds of Chinese are working at a seaport. [newsphoto/file]

But nowadays, with more and more Chinese going abroad, people are becoming aware of the wide range of risks ranging from natural disasters to terrorist bombings and bloody crimes that may involve their friends, relatives and even themselves when they are thousands of miles away from home.

Yesterday morning, about 20 gunmen burst into a construction site in Afghanistan, killing 11 Chinese workers and wounding four in one of the bloodiest attacks on foreigners in the country.

The attack on a Chinese aid project in northern Kunduz Province occurred two days after about 100 Chinese workers had arrived at the site, according to Xinhua News Agency.

On May 23, two Chinese nationals were killed and one injured when a large portion of the vaulted roof of a new passenger terminal caved in at the Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.

They were part of an eight-member Chinese trade delegation from a Beijing company who were waiting for a flight from Paris to Mexico.

On May 3, a group of Pakistanis used a remote-controlled car bomb to attack Chinese engineers at Gwadar port, in southwestern Pakistan, killing three and injuring nine others.

These Chinese engineers were helping the South Asia country with the construction of its Gwadar port project.

On April 11, seven Chinese nationals were seized as international hostages in war-ravaged Iraq but were finally released after 36 hours as a result of the successful intervention of Chinese diplomats.

The seven workers from East China's Fujian Province were travelling to Baghdad from Jordan to look for jobs in Iraq.

These incidents are actually only a few of the growing number of threats posed by terrorist attack, kidnappings and accidents that Chinese citizens travelling or living overseas may find themselves facing.

As a result of their wider and more frequent presence in other countries around the world, Chinese citizens overseas have to think more about their safety and security when they are out of the country.

Increasing risks abroad

Given the grave situation, the Chinese Government, especially its diplomatic missions, faces a tough job in ensuring the security of its citizens overseas, according to diplomacy experts.

As many as 126 travellers holding Chinese passports, who had been cheated by intermediaries offering fake overseas employment opportunities in Malaysia, return to Fuzhou airport on April 15 in Fujian Province, with the help of the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia. [newsphoto/file]

To the public's satisfaction, Chinese diplomats stationed abroad have so far done a fairly good job of providing prompt help to Chinese citizens involved in overseas troubles.

At the time of the roof collapse at the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, for instance, staff members of the Chinese Embassy in France rushed to the scene to contact Chinese victims.

They also sought help from related departments of the French Government to organize care and accommodation for the Chinese victims.

Later, they helped make arrangements for the relatives of the two Chinese nationals killed to come to France to look after funeral arrangements and to discuss compensation with French authorities.

Upon learning of the car bombing at Gwardar port, Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Zhang Chunxiang immediately contacted members of the presidential office of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to arrange for the best possible medical treatment for the Chinese casualties.

The ambassador also urged Pakistani police to investigate the attack immediately and strengthen protection of other Chinese engineers working in the country.

With the Iraqi kidnapping incident, Chinese diplomats played an even more critical role in securing the release of the seven Chinese hostages.

After hearing about the abduction, they worked round the clock to secure the release of the workers.

Associate Professor Zhang Lili of China Foreign Affairs University says the unprecedented emphasis placed on Chinese citizens' personal security marks the beginning of a new role for China's diplomatic officers.

"Chinese diplomats used to be concerned only with State affairs, and Chinese citizens overseas used to complain bitterly about the indifference of these diplomats to the difficulties and troubles faced by Chinese travelling or living abroad," Zhang added.

"But now Chinese diplomatic offices have begun to shift their working priority to looking after the needs of individual Chinese."

Diplomacy serving people

The historic change has unfolded against a special background - the new generation of Chinese leadership led by President Hu Jintao is working in a new style that features humanistic governance and the principle of focusing on people. That means to base all actions on the interests of the people, to meet the various demands of the people and achieve an all-around development that works for the benefit of the people.

To carry this working style into the diplomatic service, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing once said Chinese diplomats should do more concrete work to safeguard the legitimate interests of Chinese citizens, including mainland people as well as compatriots in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.

This means that Chinese diplomacy, which used to be shrouded in secrecy, will be more people-friendly than it has ever been before.

Luo Guotian, director-general of the Department of Consular Affairs under the Foreign Ministry, says the ministry has been working hard to improve its system to provide Chinese citizens abroad with better consular protection.

Before 1978 when China launched the reform and opening-up drive, the country had only seven consulates around the world. The number has now risen to 65, together with 220 other overseas diplomatic institutions, in more than 160 countries and regions.

The country has also signed over 140 consular agreements with other nations to offer consular protection to Chinese citizens abroad.

The consular protection covers personal safety, right of abode, property rights, employment rights, social welfare, humanitarian treatment of Chinese citizens overseas and guarantees of normal access to Chinese consulates.

Luo notes that the Foreign Ministry issued its first Guide Book for Consular Protection and Services Abroad as early as 2000.

The move aimed to "make it convenient for Chinese citizens to safeguard their legitimate rights and interests through China's embassies and consulates during their travel, work, study or stay abroad," the director-general said.

In May 2003 a new and more practical version of the Guide Book was published and is available free in all of China's overseas institutions.

Luo also disclosed that his ministry had designed an emergency mechanism system, which will be activated in case of any major incident that involves mass deaths, injuries or property loss of Chinese citizens and legal persons.

Emergency mechanism

The emergency mechanism system involves the establishment of an emergency team, drafting of a comprehensive plan, gathering of information, setting up of a 24-hour hotline and co-ordination among related departments for dealing with emergencies.

Such an emergency mechanism was proven critically useful in securing the release of the seven Chinese hostages in the April kidnapping in Iraq, according to Luo.

Despite great progress made in the past, he admits, the country still has more to do to better ensure the safety and security of every Chinese citizen overseas.

The number of overseas visits by Chinese citizens, which stood at only 200,000 in 1978, had increased 100 times to 20.2 million in 2003.

There are also more than 500,000 Chinese labourers and the same number of Chinese students working and studying abroad around the world every year.

Thousands of Chinese people may also be smuggled into other countries and regions as illegal immigrants by human smugglers.

"Frequent personnel exchanges will inevitably incur all kinds of problems," says Luo.

"And it is hard to predict when and where Chinese citizens will meet with trouble."

Hao Shiyuan, director of the Overseas Chinese Study Centre under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says the growing number of risks facing Chinese citizens abroad stems partly from the globalization drive.

As the Chinese economy becomes increasingly integrated with the world economy, it is an inevitable trend that more Chinese people will study, invest, travel, work and live abroad.

"The globalization move has brought both opportunities and risks to Chinese citizens overseas," the researcher says.

On the other hand, he adds, increasing regional conflicts and the spread of terrorism around the world has also greatly worsened the security environment for Chinese citizens overseas.

More work needed

Generally, Chinese face two categories of risks: their legitimate rights can be violated by others or they can harm others' interests through illegal activities.

The risks range from labour disputes, fraud, illegal detention, kidnappings, crime and terrorist attacks.

The complexity and urgency of the problem should prompt the Foreign Ministry and other government bodies to come up with more specific measures to protect Chinese citizens abroad, diplomacy experts say.

They suggest China learn from developed countries in the West to establish a sound and effective system to minimize risks for Chinese citizens overseas.

Zhang Xuegang, a researcher with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, says more preventive measures should be adopted and more preparation made to help Chinese citizens avoid threats to their safety when abroad:

These may include:

Publishing regular travel advisories to advise Chinese citizens to avoid travel to dangerous countries and regions;

Cracking down upon human smuggling and illegal emigration;

Co-operating with the mass media to publicize the harm and risks of illegal emigration and work abroad;

Advising Chinese citizens who stay abroad for a long time to register with Chinese embassies and consulates;

And giving better education and training to Chinese citizens to teach them how to protect themselves by taking advantage of the local laws in the countries where they are staying.

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