Chinese workers in Libya

By Pal Nyiri Acccording to a feature in Nandu Zhoukan, 36 thousand Chinese workers have been evacuated from Libya with an efficiency that, the paper claims, astounded the world. The largest operation belonged to China State Construction Engineering (CSCE, 中国建筑工程总公司), which alone employed 10 thousand Chinese workers. The paper interviewed an engineer working at a smaller operation, China Transport Construction Group (中国交通建设集团), which employed a total of 5,000 workers in Libya. This engineer, from Henan Province, worked on the real estate project near Benghazi that comprised the construction of 5,000 houses.

At the end of February, armed Libyan rebels assembled in front of the work site and commandeered two trucks. The Chinese workers assembled into units armed with crowbars and bricks; they barricaded the entrance with more trucks and threw stones over the wall. The attackers retreated, but the offices at another, unguarded work site were looted. The article refers to these Libyans as thugs and provides no political context, but the engineer is quoted as saying that Chinese workers have encountered hostility and have even been thrown stones at before. He attributes this to causing a rise in the price of consumer goods such as cigarettes: the price of Rothmans has doubled since Chinese visitors have been buying them up. The article quotes a Chinese researcher, Liu Zhirong, as saying that the Chinese media’s portrayal of African friendliness towards Chinese is skewed. The reality, it suggests, is more mixed, just as Chinese see Africa in a mixed light (they like that cars let pedestrians cross the road).

The engineer featured in the article makes $1,700 a month, or 3-4 times what he made in China, plus a “substantial” living allowance, and has almost no expenses since accommodation, meals, and transportation are provided by the company. In less than a year in Libya, he has saved over 100 thousand yuan, while his total savings before he left China were just 5,000 yuan. An ordinary construction worker makes 4-5 thousand yuan a month, while a skilled carpenter makes around 10 thousand, or over $1,500.

Workers have 2 days off in a month. At these times, the company sometimes organised a barbecue at a nearby restaurant, a shopping trip to Benghazi, or a trip to the sea. They are not allowed to leave the site on their own — to avoid incidents such as a mass fight between Chinese workers and Algerians in Algiers in 2009. (Another article says that at a work site in Mali,  there is also a sign saying ”It is not allowed to become too close to local women.”)

It is not clear if the reporters, Zhou Peng and Wu Guixia, actualy visited  Africa, or if the article is based on interviews. The fact that Lome, the capital of Togo, is described as being on the Mediterranean coast raises suspicions of the latter.

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