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Flying the flag in foreign fields

Updated: 2015-03-27 09:20
By He Na (China Daily Africa)

Chinese investment and expertise are exerting a growing influence in many countries, and also opening-up a world of opportunities for those who have been sent overseas

Every year, millions of Chinese people travel overseas for business, investment, work, tourism and study, buoyed by the country's rise as a major global power.

Data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that more than 100 million mainland residents traveled overseas last year, a huge jump from the 200,000 who went abroad in 1978.

Flying the flag in foreign fields

A Chinese doctor examines a patient in the China-Zimbabwe Friendship Hospital in Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe, on May 10. Photos by Liu Bin / Xinhua

Flying the flag in foreign fields

Workers from China and Cuba walk around a photovoltaic plant in Havana. China invested in the plant to show support for Cuba's economic development.

Although many have traveled to developed countries, there has also been a rise in the number of Chinese in developing, poverty-stricken or even war-torn regions.

Many have been dispatched by employers - ministry data suggests that there are more than 20,000 Chinese-invested businesses overseas - as companies look to expand into new markets, but others have moved overseas to provide aid, or help with upgrading local infrastructures.

Yu Hongwei, vice-president of the International Business Project Division of TBEA Shenyang Transformer Group Co, has worked in India for eight years. He has noticed a change in people's attitudes toward China and the Chinese during the time he has lived in the country, most noticeably in the wake of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Yu's work with TBEA Shenyang, China's largest non-state investor in India, mainly revolves around upgrading the local electricity network, and while he finds it a fascinating life, work commitments leave little time for trips home. "I visit my family once or twice a year. To be honest, I feel really guilty about that," the 35-year-old says.

"As the frontrunners in exploring the Indian market, we had no 'roadmap' to follow. I have visited many countries, but India is the most complicated. As newcomers it was extremely difficult to do our work without connections or the help of the local people."

When Yu arrived, there were very few Chinese in India, which led to, and fed, misconceptions. "Even worse, the local media often carried unflattering reports about China that gave the impression the country was a wild, savage and outdated place," he says. "It was very annoying because I often met Indians who tried to show off. They would point at TVs, phones and computers and ask me if China had similar high-tech products. Now, I can point out that China is the world's second-largest economy, but some people still refuse to believe me."

Things have improved since then, though. "Thanks to the success of the 2008 Olympic Games, the Indian public's attitude toward the Chinese changed dramatically. A group of Indians asked me if I was Chinese, and when I said yes, they stuck their thumbs in the air and praised the 'brilliant' opening ceremony of the Games," Yu says, adding that he experienced a similar reaction when he visited a local restaurant and hotel.

"I had never felt so good about living in India. Things have really improved since then, and even the local media has started showing favorable reports about China."

Eight years is a long time to live in a foreign country, and Yu says he has felt the influence of changes in the relationship between the two countries, both good and bad. Now, he's juggling conflicting loyalties to home and family and his career.

"I want to be with the family, but my career has developed in India. It's really a hard choice to make," he says.

Compared with Yu, Li Xiaoteng, who works for Sinohydro Engineering Bureau Four Co in Gabon, was fortunate because she enjoyed life in Gabon from day one.

The 28-year-old met and settled down with her husband in Gabon, and has lived in the coastal Central African country for five years. However, her memories of the early days will always focus on the poor infrastructure, especially because her company is a major player in a project to upgrade the local power network.

"The living conditions were too bad for words for the first couple of years. We lived in the so-called rich area, but water was only available every two or three days, and the duration and the amount available was always extremely limited. Also, the supply always seemed to resume at 1 or 2 am," she says.

During the frequent power outages, Li and her husband usually went to bed at 10 pm, making sure to place a large container under the water pipe and leave the faucet open in case the flow resumed during the night. Whenever the supply resumed, they would quickly fill as many containers as possible, take showers and wash their clothes.

"The flow of water was minimal, a trickle, and it took a long time just to half-fill a basin. But thanks to my military school training, I can bathe effectively in a small amount of water. Sometimes the supply was cut off for a week or longer, and we had to drive to the beach to get seawater so we could flush the toilet," she says. "The power supply was so fragile. There's no better word than 'hell' to describe the days when both the water and power supplies were cut off during the rainy season."

Even now, despite the relative abundance of water and power brought about by Chinese companies and their upgrading work, many locals still line up to fill barrels with water. "Many areas are very, very poor, so it's often the case that an area will only have one water tap," she says.

The situation is improving, though, and the completion of several infrastructure projects means that power and water are now accepted features of life in the capital, Libreville.

"But the phone network is still a nightmare. It's not unusual for the entire network to stop working, meaning it's impossible to make any calls," she says.

Before she visited Africa, Li thought of the continent as a wild and lawless place, but after half a decade in Gabon she has changed her opinion. "They have some very good political policies, such as rights for women, and the people are pretty law-abiding - drivers always give pedestrians priority, for example" she says.

"I lost my purse containing my ID card, phone card and some cash. I thought it had been stolen, but two months later it was handed in at the Chinese Embassy and everything was still inside," she says. "The longer I stay, the less I miss home. I'm even considering inviting my parents to visit."

Although the world is generally a peaceful place, some regions and countries are torn by conflict, terrorism, regional wars and separatism.

Teng Song, a project representative for Huawei Technologies Co, says his experiences in some of the world's worst hotspots have sharpened his understanding of the concept of danger.

"People who live in peaceful places simply don't have a sense of war, but during my stay in Afghanistan, I was constantly aware that death was so close," says the 33-year-old, who lived in Pakistan for three years, and worked in Afghanistan before that.

"Once, three masked insurgents attacked a polling station during a presidential election and exchanged gunfire with US soldiers. It took place just a block away. The gunfire lasted for hours, so we all took refuge in the basement. When it was over, we went to the scene, and saw a gate with so many bullet holes it looked like a sieve. That scared me far more than any horror movie I've ever seen," he says.

One of Teng's colleagues fought off a man who attempted to snatch his bag, but his resistance incensed the would-be thief, who pulled a gun and opened fire. Luckily, the bullet hit the man's laptop, and he escaped injury. "He hung the hard disk with its bullet hole on the wall as a reminder of his 'second life'," Teng says.

He recalls the frequent bomb attacks, saying they were impossible to predict and there was no guarantee one would not become a victim. "Once, we were having a meal in a hotel and two explosives-filled cars that had been made to look like ambulances were deliberately crashed into the wall and exploded. We were lucky because the restaurant was on the other side of the building," he says. "Cold sweat ran down my forehead. The sense of death and danger was so real as we walked out through the smoke and dust."

Although he finds Pakistan a more welcoming place, attempted robbery and fraud are commonplace. "We are often approached by fake policemen who pretend they are checking passports so they could get a chance to snatch your wallet. Even so, we are very proud to say that our efforts helped to improve the local Internet network and provide huge reductions in the cost of phone calls and Internet use. College graduates in Pakistan are proud to sat they work for a Chinese company," he says.

"I'm quite accustomed to life outside China now. I really enjoy it, and I want to continue living this sort of life."


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