* Dr. Wang Zhen, associate professor of international studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), currently director of the Security Studies Program at the SASS Institute of China Studies
On Jan 28, a group of 27 Chinese visitors took a pleasure boat ride off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state. Unfortunately, their crowded boat sank, resulting in the deaths of three Chinese travelers; five others were reported missing. About a week later, three Chinese tourists were injured by gun-wielding gangsters in a robbery at a Johannesburg hotel in South Africa.
It was not the first time that the safety and lives of Chinese nationals were under threat in Malaysia or South Africa, and surely, would not be the last. In the past few years, incidents involving the safety of Chinese nationals in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Europe and America, have been reported. On April 2, 2014, a young woman from Shanghai was kidnapped from her hotel, also in Sabah state. One month later, a merchant from Guizhou Province was also kidnapped. These incidents foreshadowed a security dilemma that Chinese nationals are increasingly exposed to when traveling abroad.
In 2010, China overtook Japan to become the second-largest economy. From then on, the “spillover effect” of China’s fast economic growth began to take its toll, and the security and safety of Chinese nationals have become prominent issues.
First, with China’s fast economic growth, more of her people have become financially capable of traveling abroad, and so the threat to their safety and security has risen during their overseas trips. In 2016 alone, Chinese nationals made 122 million outbound trips. Whatever the purposes of their trips -- for travel, study, relocation or business, any increase in the number of overseas trips will surely give rise to the number of safety and security incidents.
Second, many of the Chinese nationals are not yet well-prepared for overseas travel. For the people who can now afford it, making trips abroad is an exciting experience, but many need better information first. For instance, some people don’t have basic knowledge about security and precautionary measures; they lack a basic understanding about local religions, cultures and customs; some prefer carrying a big amount of cash; some are not willing to seek out the police to report or get help when their safety is threatened. All these factors could increase their security risks.
Third, with the trends of globalization and free flow of information, any criminal activity can easily attract followers. Terror activities have blossomed across the world ever since the Sept 11 attacks in 2001. According to the annual anti-terror report issued by the US Department of State, in 2001, the global total number of terror attacks was 355, but by 2015, the monthly average had surged to 981 across the world. Many believe that the rise in terror attacks after the Sept 11 incidents is directly attributable to effect of the unrestrained reporting of these events by global media. In fact, such reporting seems to have stimulated crimes such as robbery, kidnapping and fraud against Chinese nationals in some countries and regions. Further study is needed to document this correlation.
International criminal forces, faced with global anti-terror cooperation and clampdown on crimes, began to seek survival through collaboration. By making use of convenient telecom and communication tools, they strengthened cross-border collaboration and have become hard nuts to crack in the global anti-terror war. For example, al-Qaida, which was almost wiped out by US military forces, is trying to re-establish its global network through cooperation with other terror groups. For another example, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which has been targeted vigorously by Chinese law enforcement and anti-terror authorities, is now trying to team up with international terror groups such as al-Qaida, the Islamic State and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and has organized and launched a series of terror attacks in Thailand, Turkey and Kyrgyzstan in the past few years.
Overseas security for Chinese nationals is just one of China’s growing pains. This one, however, calls for both China’s efforts and international cooperation. The Chinese government needs to provide better and adequate education and guidance on security and safety for outbound travelers, and also needs to further improve consular protection and capabilities in handling emergencies, so as to provide necessary consular services and security assistance to all citizens during their overseas stays. The international community, meanwhile, must support joint efforts to fight terrorism and cross-border criminal activities, such as piracy, kidnapping and fraud. At the same time, countries need to strengthen cooperation in emergency response and joint search-and-rescue efforts. Countries eager to attract Chinese visitors and to develop their tourism industry must do more than sign visa-free agreements with China; they also need to guarantee stability and safety in their countries. In particular, they need to improve safety in tourism transportation and at attraction sites. Only when tourists’ safety is guaranteed and every tourist can enjoy the pleasure of experiencing different societies and cultures can the tourism industry develop healthily, and social and economic prosperity be maintained.