China’s search for business opportunities abroad has meant it is gradually becoming more entangled in a messy geopolitical world. 

When the Chinese Communist Party officially endorsed the ‘going-out policy’ in 2002 to encourage Chinese companies to invest overseas, the magnitude of the decision might not have been fully appreciated. More than a dozen years later, the strategic decision to support the international expansion of Chinese business has already reshaped the country’s threat perceptions and security interests. China is now a major-league foreign investor, with outward foreign direct investment (FDI) reaching a record high of US$101 billion in 2013 – up more than 15% year on year. In the first half of 2014, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that China was among the top five overseas investors. 

China’s new global footprint exposes Chinese companies to greater threats, and the Chinese government has in many ways been compelled to ‘go global’ to protect these new-found interests abroad. Never before has geopolitical risk and conflict overseas so impacted Chinese economic and security interests. But it is not only Chinese companies globalising; the fate and well-being of millions of Chinese individuals abroad has, via intense media and public scrutiny, also become part of the Chinese national interest. 

Estimates put the number of Chinese nationals overseas at more than 5 million, including up to 2m in Africa – although, as with most other aspects of China’s rise, available numbers are not always accurate and many statistics are simply not collected or published by government agencies and firms. Chinese expatriate workers are exposed to the risk of terrorist attacks, kidnappings and local unrest. In the past few years alone, they have been caught up in civil wars in Libya, Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Iraq. Our collected data suggest that 100 or more Chinese nationals have died abroad in the past decade as a result of geopolitical violence. Thousands more are under threat. Future uncertainties demand new types of risk management by Chinese companies and the state.

Jonas Parello-Plesner is a diplomat and scholar, currently with the Danish Embassy in Washington, DC. He previously worked for the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. The views expressed are his own.

Dr Mathieu Duchâtel is Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and SIPRI’s representative in Beijing since 2011.

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