China is bringing workers home from Syria, its commerce minister said on Wednesday, in an apparent attempt to avoid a repeat of last year's eleventh-hour rescue of Chinese nationals from Libya when violence engulfed that country.
Only about 100 Chinese workers will be left behind to guard work camps and equipment, the minister, Chen Deming, said. He did not give figures for the total number of Chinese citizens or projects in Syria.
"The Chinese government and ministries must seriously undertake the protection of Chinese firms' production and projects overseas, and the protection of the lives of Chinese citizens overseas, especially engineering teams," Chen told reporters.
China sent an envoy to Damascus this week, even as closed-door meetings were held at the United Nations to discuss a U.S.-drafted resolution urging an end to the Syrian government's increasingly lethal crackdown on a year-long revolt.
Yin Gang, a professor at the China Academy of Social Sciences and an expert on China's Middle East policies, said the pullout of Chinese citizens does not signal a shift in the government's stance towards the conflict.
"I think it is only for safety concerns and has no relation to a policy change," Yin said.
China joined Russia to veto U.N. resolutions on Syria in October and February, moves which drew fierce international condemnation.
China was caught off guard last year when a civil war erupted in Libya. Nearly 36,000 of its nationals left the country, some by hastily chartered ships while others fled into neighbouring countries.
Chinese workers were involved in Libyan projects worth $17 billion, Chen said, describing them as primarily residential construction projects, in or near Libyan cities.
His remarks represent some of the most detailed comments by Beijing officials regarding Chinese interests in Libya.
"The tragedy is that these projects were badly damaged during the instability, the civil war and the foreign intervention," Chen said.
"So we are negotiating with the Libyan government, we hope that the Libyan government can actually begin compensation for these projects in accordance with international norms."
China was evaluating security in Libya, he said, but did not deem it safe enough for work on the projects to resume.
China's growing appetite for resources and Chinese firms' competitiveness in overseas road, dam and construction tenders has exposed its workers to dangers when they go overseas.
In January, 29 Chinese workers were kidnapped and one killed by rebels in Sudan.
In recent years, Chinese workers have also been targeted in Egypt, Niger and Pakistan, among other countries.