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Feb. 12: Overseas citizen protection: a growing challenge for China

The term ‘overseas citizen protection’, or haiwai gongmin baohu in Mandarin, refers to efforts by a range of Chinese institutions to assist or evacuate Chinese citizens working abroad. It first came to prominence in 2004 when deadly attacks killed 14 Chinese workers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Since then, the number of attacks on Chinese citizens has grown significantly. Between 2006 and 2010, a total of 6000 Chinese citizens were evacuated from upheavals in Chad, Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Solomon Islands, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Tonga. In 2011, meanwhile, China evacuated a staggering 48 000 of its citizens from Egypt, Libya and Japan. 

And three more recent cases have grabbed headlines: the murder of 13 Chinese merchant sailors in northern Thailand in October 2011; the kidnapping of Chinese workers by rebels in Sudan’s South Kordofan province in January 2012; and a similar attack by Bedouin tribesmen in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, also in January. 

These attacks, and the projected increase in the number of Chinese citizens abroad to 100 million by 2020, almost certainly means that more such challenges lie ahead for China. But which body or bodies will be there to assist, and how?


A lack of coordination between institutional players

Up until now, China’s approach to protection of its citizens overseas has been cautiously ad hoc. There is no real alternative: the central government does not know exactly how many Chinese passport holders are overseas at any one time, although estimates put the number at 5.5 million in 2011, up from 3.5 million in 2005. 

State-owned enterprises are said to employ 300 000 Chinese workers abroad, but again there are no official statistics. Moreover, coordination between government ministries, the armed forces, state-owned enterprises and private businesses—problematic under most circumstances—remains unclear when it comes to protecting citizens abroad. Instead, each of these institutions is working separately to develop crisis management procedures. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), for example, has created a Bureau of Consular Protection within the Department of Consular Affairs.  However, the Ministry only employs about 140 consular diplomats in Beijing and about 600 spread across more than 250 embassies, consulates and other representations abroad. The MFA also disseminates security information through a website (, launched in November 2011) and has concluded an agreement with Chinese mobile phone operators to ensure that Chinese nationals receive a text message with basic security information (including contact numbers for the Chinese consulate and local police) upon arrival in a foreign country. 

In the aftermath of the murder of the Chinese merchant sailors in Thailand in October 2011, however, it was officials from the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) who negotiated with Myanmar, Thailand and Laos to reach an agreement on joint river patrols. Although the MFA was involved in the negotiations, the fact that the MPS took the lead can be seen as part of a widespread devolution of foreign policy away from the MFA. 


The role of the PLA and state-owned companies 

Meanwhile, the 2011 evacuation operation in Libya—involving the dispatch of a Jiangkai-II class frigate from the Gulf of Aden to the Libyan coast—marked the first participation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in a non-combatant evacuation operation. The deployment of four PLA Air Force Il-76 transport aircraft to the south of Libya to extract Chinese citizens was also unprecedented. Less remarked upon at the time, however, was the involvement of Chinese military attachés from Europe and the Middle East who helped coordinate the operation. 

Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private corporations have important responsibilities, not only because they sometimes employ workers in dangerous spots. Their financial clout and organization could be a major asset in the overall overseas protection strategy. For now, though, most lack standard operation procedures to prevent incidents and handle crises. Although some firms have risk assessment units most have not yet established a chief security officer position.

Concerns have also been raised about some Chinese companies’ deployment of poorly trained private security forces. Some experts advocate government regulation to compel SOEs to adopt overseas security budgets proportionate to the risks but this is a cost many companies are unwilling to bear.


Past practice suggests that coordination between these various actors comes about only after political decisions have been made at the highest level. Larger evacuations in particular require endorsement from the Standing Committee of the Politburo and the Central Military Commission. While State Councillor Dai Bingguo coordinated the Egypt operation in 2011, the scale of the evacuation in Libya required the creation of a task force headed by Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang, a Politburo member and head of the State Council Production Safety Commission. 

Given that the number of Chinese citizens working abroad is projected to increase even more over the next decade, is it reasonable to assume that China will again be compelled to provide protective assistance to its citizens, as it did in Egypt and Libya in 2011? What effect might this have on Chinese foreign policy? Will Beijing further adjust its principles on sovereignty and non-intervention? Will the challenge of protecting Chinese citizens overseas lead to greater bilateral or multilateral cooperation with other major governments, such as in Europe or the United States?


Cooperation with foreign governments

As is usual with Chinese foreign policies, while a number of interesting changes are now taking place, they are likely to unfold in a deliberative way over time. Furthermore, China already seeks Western cooperation on these issues. For example, within the context of the Libyan operation, the transiting through Malta and Greece of thousands of Chinese workers, some of them without a valid passport, could only have come about through cooperative relations with European countries. 

In the Gulf of Aden, meanwhile, Western naval vessels escort Chinese merchant shipping and Chinese escorts extend their protection to non-Chinese vessels when they are able. Additional cooperation is possible. China has expressed an interest in exchanges with Europe and the United States on evacuation operations and consular protection. France, Canada, the United Kingdom and the USA have a long record of non-combatant military evacuations, and major Western companies have developed sophisticated safety policies to operate in risky locales. 

Nevertheless, in the short term it is more likely that China’s priorities in this area—as in many aspects of its foreign policy—will focus inwards. Setting up effective standard procedures for protecting Chinese citizens overseas is to a great extent an institutional issue, involving questions over the distribution of costs and responsibilities between different government agencies, SOEs and private enterprises. 

Further institutionalization is very likely, given leadership commitment to and strong public support for a foreign policy that delivers concrete benefits to Chinese nationals and enterprises. Looking ahead, protecting its citizens abroad will no doubt become more complicated for Beijing. It is an inevitable risk for a globalizing China, and one that it will be grappling with for a long time to come.

About the authors 

Dr Mathieu Duchâtel is a SIPRI Senior Researcher based in Beijing and Dr Bates Gill is SIPRI’s Director. Read more about SIPRI’s China and global security programme. 

An earlier version of this article appeared on 6 February 2012 in PacNet, the newsletter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum. The opinions expressed are the authors’ own.