The crash of the Boeing 777 in San Francisco over the weekend caused an uproar in China’s media, given that there were 141 Chinese passengers on board, with 2 Chinese citizens confirmed dead. Among those on the plane, a day later still only 40 Chinese passengers had been confirmed alive by Chinese Foreign Ministry, although the number was being constantly updated.
Immediately, the Department of Consular Affairs in China’s Foreign Ministry and its Consulate in San Francisco sprang into action, initiating a 24-hour emergency consular protection service, announced through a post on the front page of the Foreign Ministry’s website.
As this effort suggested, since taking office earlier this year, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made consulate protection a higher priority than his predecessors did. In March, for instance, he personally visited the Department of Consular Affairs. Then, last month, Wang told a senior-level forum: “Let’s make [an] effort to offer safer traveling for Chinese tourists overseas, [a] better educational environment for Chinese students aboard, [a] more friendly commercial environment for Chinese businessmen, and more convenience for Chinese workers overseas, to help them to realize their Chinese dreams.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
However, China’s ability to achieve Wang’s objective is clearly limited. As Wang himself pointed out in the speech, China has “twenty thousand enterprises worldwide and over 80 million” Chinese travel overseas every year. Yet, China’s Foreign Ministry only employs about 140 consular diplomats in Beijing and about 600 spread across more than 250 embassies, consulates and other diplomatic entities abroad.
In an interview with China Daily last year, Huang Ping, the director-general of the Department of Consular Affairs said that in recent years his office has had to deal with about 30,000 cases annually. Thus, the average consular diplomat must handle over 40 cases each year, and this number is growing rapidly as Chinese nationals face more and more insecurity abroad.
The strain on the consular diplomats is likely to increase as the new Chinese government—specially, new Premier Li Keqiang— has said it will not increase the number of civil servants.
This situation is further exuberated by the fragmented state of China’s consular protection apparatus. For instance, Chinese nationals who encounter crises overseas are directed to immediately contact the Chinese embassy for help. But many who try find that no one at the embassy answers the phone if incidents occur outside of normal working hours.
Some steps have been taken to improve the situation. For example, in 2011, the Foreign Ministry began disseminating security information through a website it set up. It has also tried to reach out to Chinese nationals in more innovative ways such as setting up a Weibo account. Additionally, it has signed agreements with Chinese telecommunication operators to ensure that, upon arriving in a foreign country, Chinese nationals receive a text message with basic security information (including contact numbers for the Chinese consulate and local police).
These initiatives notwithstanding, the average Chinese traveler has likely seen little concrete improvements. For example, while 600 million Chinese are on the internet these days, many are not. Further, the cost of surfing the internet abroad is often beyond the reach of Chinese nationals. In other cases, the country they are traveling in has limited internet access itself. Thus, for these and other Chinese travelers, the Foreign Ministry’s online initiatives are of limited use to them during a crisis.
There’s little doubt that China’s consular services are facing greater challenges than ever before. Whether a solution will be forthcoming remains an open question.
Colleen Wong is a China Power columnist.