04/26/2007, 00.00
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Chinese workers in Ethiopia paying for Beijing’s Africa policy

Ethiopian troops look for abducted Chinese workers. Local rebels had publicly announced their intentions in the area. In Africa Chinese companies and workers are increasingly targeted by groups fighting against ruling regimes. For experts, this is the result of Beijing’s hands-off policy vis-à-vis local dictatorships.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Ethiopian troops continue searching for seven missing Chinese workers who were taken during a rebel attack on an oilfield that left 74 people dead, including nine Chinese employees of state-owned China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec). Experts are now asking whether Beijing will review its Africa policy.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a group of ethnic Somalis fighting for independence since 1984, claimed responsibility for the raid. The rebels had repeatedly warned energy companies that they would not allow oil and gas exploration in the area “by this [Ethiopian] regime or any firm with which it enters into an illegal contract” as long as the Ogaden people are “denied their rights to self-determination.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao condemned the massacre, hoping for the safe return of those who were kidnapped. However, he did not talk about the reasons behind the attack, except to say that the rebels’ “goal was to sabotage China's relations with the Ethiopian government.”

Experts note that these deaths are a consequence of Beijing’s non-interference policy, of turning a blind eye to repression and bad governance in its eagerness to secure supplies of oil and other natural resources.

Ethiopia for instance has been off-limits for most western companies since the 2005 police massacre of 193 political protesters. But this opened the doors to their Chinese counterparts. This gave Huawei Technologies and two other mainland companies an opportunity to invest US$ 1.5 billion into Ethiopia's telecommunications system.

In the case of the attacked oil-field, non-interference did not go so far as to stop Sinopec from accepting a 100-strong contingent of Ethiopian soldiers for protection, reflecting close cooperation between the company and the Ethiopian government.

African governments welcome Chinese companies with open arms because China, unlike Western governments, is willing to offer financial aid free of political conditions like human rights guarantees and pledges to spend aid money on people.

One outcome of this policy is that, increasingly, charges of economic colonialism are being levelled at China. In several African countries this has led to street protests and other actions.

On February 14 Chinese oil workers with the Chinese National Petroleum Company were kidnapped in Nigeria. Although they were eventually freed, local rebels accused the Chinese multinational of propping up a corrupt government and taking away their natural resources. In March two other Chinese employees were abducted and are still missing.

In Kenya a Chinese engineer was killed and another injured. In Zambia workers at a Chinese-owned mine rioted over pay and ill treatment by management.

However, not many analysts believe that China will change its strategy in Africa anytime soon and this despite the need to protect the millions of Chinese workers living abroad.

Zhang Xiaodong, a senior research fellow at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the China Academy of Social Science, said that China as the world’s factory had little choice but to import energy and resources. This is “why China has to deal with Sudan or Iran when other countries are denouncing them,” he told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

Currently, 5 per cent of China's crude oil imports come from Sudan and 13 per cent from Angola. (PB)

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