The Chinese workers do not seem to have been targeted because of their nationality, but rather because their status as foreigners makes them more valuable as pawns in local conflicts. But a number of factors appear to make Chinese expatriates more vulnerable than their Western counterparts, experts say.
To start with, Chinese companies tend to invest and operate in risky places. “China needs more resources and that drives companies to resource-rich countries that tend also to be dangerous countries,” says Professor Shen.
At the same time, Chinese firms often bring their own laborers to do work that Western companies would hire local employees to do, under expatriate supervision. That means Chinese companies set up camps where large numbers of Chinese workers live in close quarters, making them tempting targets for criminal gangs, guerrillas, or others who find it useful to take foreign hostages.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Chinese contractors often operate in remote areas, using the expertise they have gained at home in building pipelines, roads, and other infrastructure in distant and difficult locations. The nature of such projects, often spread over large and remote areas “makes insurgent attacks more likely because less protection is available,” says Barry Sautman, an expert on Chinese activities in Africa at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Nor do Chinese companies generally have the same sort of protection that Western firms operating in dangerous places receive when they hire foreign security contractors. Though some armed Chinese security men were reported to have joined the Sudanese Army this week in the search for the 29 missing road workers, China has not developed the sort of private security industry, staffed by former military men, that US firms such as Blackwater epitomize.