China: Out of Libya

It‘s [zh] since been disabled, but there was one especially eye-catching post on Tianya, one of China's most widely-read bbs forum sites last month. ‘Save us!’ it read. ‘We've been stuck in Libya for over a year and we're about to go crazy here!’

Racist attitude, seen further down, might be their biggest problem. The post was put up by Tianya staff on behalf of three Chinese men now in legal limbo in Libya's capital Tripoli. Out walking around on New Year's Day, they say they chanced upon and told their story to a documentary film maker for Chinese TV, who just happens to be friends with one Tianya's executives.

As their story goes, they went to Libya in early 2005 as part of China's no-holds-barred investment drive into Africa, part of a crew of twenty-something contracted to do installation work on a trade building. A month into the project, a fire started in the basement and burned up through all seven floors.

Most of the guys then returned to China, but the contractor Wu and three of his employees, Zheng Jianbo, Tan Pingdeng and Tan Shuibin were deemed responsible by Libyan authorities. The four spent some time in jail until their case went to court, where they were each sentenced to one year in prison. Released on bail in exchange for their passports, the three appealed, demanding to see proof of their guilt, and the case has dragged on ever since, all the way up to a Supreme Court hearing this month at which the guilty verdict was upheld. Late last year, Boss Wu disappeared and stopped answering his phone, and it was at this point that Zheng and the Tans turned to the internet, desperate for help.

We have no money, no passports, we'd already stopped welding by the time fire happened, and the Chinese embassy in Tripoli won't help us, they said. The embassy refuted that last claim in an official statement [zh], saying they had done what they could, which isn't much given that Libya is a sovereign state with its own legal system. The news was pasted around many Chinese new websites, a large number of which chose to take the workers’ side of the story for granted [zh], which several people responding online claim takes liberties with certain facts.

Here's the original Tianya post:


Save us! We've been stuck in Libya for over a year now and we're about to go crazy. We are law-abiding citizens of China. We were invited to Libya to do installations on Libya's China Trade Center. We came in a group of over twenty people, but a large fire led to a few of us welders being stuck here.


We don't speak the language, and we don't have work, and the days just keep dragging on here. Our families are very worried about us. We don't know how many times we've gone to the Chinese embassy here in Libya, but it's been no use. I don't know what they're thinking, it's like they don't want to get involved in our case. We're innocent, we haven't done anything illegal here. We are law-abiding Chinese citizens. We came to Libya on February 19, 2005.



We're really helpless now. Last year our boss was still giving us living money, but starting this year [2007] even he won't meet with us, always hiding from us. We phone his cellphone, but it's always closed. It's because of this that we turned to the embassy. We told them they should help us. Right now we just want to find our boss, so we asked the embassy to help us with that. But they said there was nothing they could do; they even told us not to come back, that the embassy wouldn't give us any food or a place to sleep. You tell me, if we can't turn to the embassy here, which department of the Chinese government is there that can help us? Can you tell us the way in this wild goose chase? We beg you. We want to go home.


The reason we're stuck here goes like this: we came to Libya on February 19, 2005, to do installations on a building. But before we'd even been here a month, the basement of the building caught on fire. The day of the fire, we weren't even working in the building, we were outside working on the bannister. For the three days before the fire, we hadn't done any welding. As for how the fire started in the basement, we still don't know even until now.

Followed by a note from the person who posted it:

浦项(张家港)设备公司 孙红英 2007-01-10 15:00:01 联系电话:0512-56162509

(Hong Yingmi: this can be seen occasionally on forums. The embassy staff, find it yourselves to help them! Sure, it's not your responsibility or duty, but help your fellow citizens! Due to a word count limit, I'll be posting again.
Puxiang (Zhangjia Harbour) Installation Company, Sun Hongying, January 10, 2007

To which, on January 18, the webmaster responded:

[本栏编辑] 2007-01-18 17:09:21

The embassy to Libya is already dealing with this matter. For more details please visit the Foreign Ministry website and leave a message in the Libyan embassy's mailbox.
January 18, 2007. 5:09 pm.

The Chinese embassy in Libya doesn't have a website, and all that's listed on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website is the embassy's street and e-mail address. Better than nothing, except that Libyan keyboards don't allow for Chinese character input, and the three construction workers don't speak English or Arabic (yet). The Chinese Ministry of Commerce, however, has a public comment section for matters related to Libya [zh], where the above original post can now be found, as well as this, submitted by user ‘teresany’ on January 10, 2007:


This post seems to be real, because I phoned the number it lists and spoke with that Zheng Jianbo. Below is my rough understanding of what's happened. Because his accent is so strong, I wasn't able to understand clearly what he was saying, so there might be some inconsistencies. According to what he said, a week after the fire, the three of them were brought in by police for questioning, and a written record was taken to understand the cause of the fire. After the questioning, they were free to leave. After the fire, all twenty-something of them had no work and just stayed at home. Fifty days later they found work on another building. A month after that, the three of them were brought in for questioning again. This time it lasted until five or six in the evening, and then they were taken straight to prison and kept there for over a month. During this time, they appeared in court every two days. Each session was the same in that they were asked to admit that the fired started due their on-job negligence. Their boss, Wu Dongchun, just happens to be the chairman of the Chinese trade mission to Libya. Wu Dongchun was present for each court session and seems was in prison with them, as well as one Libyan, who hired their lawyer, a local. Whether it was questioning or court session, there was always an interpreter present, but a different one each time. They asked the Chinese embassy for assistance many times, and met with many people there, from Director Wu to Liu Xiang (both of whom have since been transfered back to China). The person they're most in contact with now is a Chen Ping. From what they've said, this is just how Libyan law goes, eventually things will get better and they'll be let go. They've been sentenced to one year. The embassy people told them that the original sentence was a miscarriage of justice, but it was upheld at the most recent court session. Now they just wish the embassy would find a way to let them go home. They are now living in a work shed built by their boss and living off the two yuan per day as originally agreed too. Aside from the three of them, all the others [construction workers] have returned to China.

浦项(张家港)设备公司 孙红英 2007-01-10 15:02:19 联系电话:0512-56162509

The only thing that can really help them now is if the Chinese embassy gets involved. Those who want to help can send an e-mail to the ambassador and other diplomatic officers, forward them this post, give them some pressure, let them know that this incident has already been made public. Tell them that it's their job to protect and assist Chinese citizens overseas. Even if they don't care about manual laborers overseas, they'll always care about keeping their posts.
Someone from Wenzhou or Hunan should phone them to find out more; their accents really are too thick, most people won't be able to understand.
Puxiang (Zhangjia Harbour) Installation Company, Sun Hongying, January 10, 2007


[本栏编辑] 2007-01-18 17:08:46

The embassy to Libya is already dealing with this matter. For more details please visit the Foreign Ministry website and leave a message in the Libyan embassy's mailbox.
January 18, 2007. 5:08 pm.

The Ministry of Commerce may not have wanted to hear it, but the posts kept coming. Here's a third post from the benevolent blogger, the words allegedly from one defendant himself:


The reason we're stuck here goes like this: we came to Libya on February 19, 2005, to do installations on a building. But before we'd even been there a month, the basement of the building caught on fire. The day of the fire, we weren't even working in the building, we were outside working on the bannister. For the three days before the fire, we hadn't done any welding. As for how the fire started in the basement, we still don't know even until now.

就是这样,我就被这里的检察院起诉,把我们的护照扣留了,为了这件事,我们几个人还被关进了利比亚的监狱。啊,这里的监狱真不是人呆的地方。里面都是黑人,他们身上的味道也真难受,就这样我们在这里面呆了一个月的时间。在这一个月的时间里我们被提审,开庭10次之多。(那个时候是2005年6 月27号,我们被抓进去的)他们这个国家不讲道理,也不讲理由。再说我们语言又不通,我们怎么申辩也没有用。再说了,他们抓我们是没有证据的。我想在我们中国这样是不行的,我们在这里没有一点人权。

It's like this: charges were laid against me by their procuratorate here, and our passports were taken. Because of this fire, the bunch of us were locked away in Libyan prison. Aye, the prisons here are really not fit for humans. They're filled with black people. And their body odor is so hard to stand. And we had to spend a month there. During that month we were arraigned, and had over ten court sessions. (We were thrown in on June 27, 2005) They don't make any sense here in this country, and don't give any reasons. Again, we don't speak their language, and our alibis our useless. Again, they arrested us with no proof. This wouldn't happen in our China. We have no human rights here whatsoever.


Now the court is saying that it was mistakes we made while working that caused the fire, and by that has sentenced us to a year in prison. We disagree, and have appealed to the Supreme Court.


Can you help us think of what we should do? We beg you.


The Chinese Embassy to Libya's phone number is 00218-021-4832914
Ambassador Li: 00218-091-2130116
Office Director: 00218-061-2130117
My e-mail: [that could be a typo and the actual address is]


Of the twenty-plus people who came to Libya, there's just us three left. Today, here, we beg you, please help us.


Tan Shuibin: Xinglongchang village, Luxi township, Hunan province. Passport no.: G095718576
Zheng Jianbo: Puzhou village, Longwan district, Wenzhou city, Zhejiang province. Passport no: 120052419
Tan Pingdeng: Xinglongchang village, Luxi township, Hunan province. Passport no.: G095718565

浦项(张家港)设备公司 孙红英 2007-01-10 15:05:08 联系电话:0512-56162509

Hong Yinmi: the above is what I've seen around on bbs forums. I'm deeply sympathetic, and extremely furious at the embassy's attitude. As compatriots even though you have no obligation or responsibility, you can at least help out!


[本栏编辑] 2007-01-18 17:08:14

The embassy to Libya is already dealing with this matter. For more details please visit the Foreign Ministry website and leave a message in the Libyan embassy's mailbox.
January 18, 2007. 5:08 pm.

Their story was reported in mainstream Chinese media, Southern Metropolis Daily, for example, so it's no surprise that someone claiming to have been there would leave a message on the Libya section of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce website's public comment space. Not one of the construction workers, but a tenant in the building which burned, the China Trade Center.

西安文苑果业公司 何选利 2007-01-15 21:53:17 联系电话:13679164880

Why is everyone thinking the embassy is the bad guy? You don't know the situation, you're just speculating. If I hadn't gone to Libya, if I didn't know the situation with the China Trade City, and hadn't received the Chinese embassy's assistance, if I didn't know what a piece of work that Wenzhounese businessman Wu is, I'd be thinking that too. But it's not like that.
When the building caught on fire, Wu tried some sneaky moves. He didn't tell us. He tricked us into coming to Libya, put us up in this place with super-high rents. Later we found out he was getting kickbacks. The day we found out there'd been a fire, he kept telling us that business would be as usual immediately…He didn't give us our deposits back, in the end in Libya when I was almost starving, it was the embassy that helped me come back to China. The leaders of the business affairs department gave us their own instant noodles. I didn't eat vegetables for a whole month [this would suggest a serious situation if in China], not even a tomato. Wu Zaili neglected his duties, just chased after girls all day. This kind of person was so disgusting as to sue them, taking advantage of some people's distrust in the government. Nonsense. He still owes us our deposits.
He Xuanli, Xian Wenyuan Fruit Industry Company. Telephone: 13679164880
January 15, 2007. 9:53 pm.

The embassy left no reply, so He Xuanli followed up with another post three days later:

西安文苑果业有限公司 何选利 2007-01-17 17:35:08 联系电话:13679164880

Wenzhounese businessman Wu ought to take on all responsibility for this, including the wages for his workers, their living costs and the tenants’ deposits and losses. And not just dump people at the embassy to let them deal with it, or let people spread false information on the internet, doing harm to the country's reputation. Wu doesn't deserve to be Chinese.
Libya is a country under rule of man, not law. If Wu were just willing to spend some money, things wouldn't have gotten this far out of hand. Wu, you pay to fix roads at home, you've bought yourself a halo, but then you don't pay your own workers’ salaries or return tenants’ deposits or compensate for losses? Every day you neglected operations, out fooling around with that girl who went to France. You're not a man.
You should stand up right now and accept responsibility for everything, instead of letting the state foot your bill. You're nowhere close to being human.


[本栏编辑] 2007-01-18 17:07:35

The embassy to Libya is already dealing with this matter. For more details please visit the Foreign Ministry website and leave a message in the Libyan embassy's mailbox.
January 18, 2007. 5:07 pm.

An official response was released the next day—even an English version, which concludes:

“The Libyan court has decided to uphold guilty verdict of the 4 people after retrial now. The Chinese Foreign Ministry and Embassy in Libya will continue to follow the developments of the case closely, render active to them in properly handling legal and living affairs on the basis of respecting their will.”


  • very dramatic story, basically sounds like a ‘he said, she said’ saga —
    unfortunately, it’s the vulnerable getting screwed…
    is there any reason to believe that the libyan court would be biased here? perhaps it was simply an accident that caused the fire, not outright negligence (i’m not a lawyer)…do they have trial by jury in libya?


  • I did see some speculation that there was so much property lost in the fire that it became a matter of finding someone to take the blame.

    Further down in the post there’s one part that was interesting, but I couldn’t find anything further to clarify, that being that their boss was part of the China trade mission to Libya, and that in the end he filed charges against the three workers. None of this was mentioned in the Southern Metropolis piece…

  • Owens

    Mr. Kennedy, I’m fascinted by your blogs; they illustrate facets of China I was previously unfamiliar with. I am currently studying Chinese in college and plan on returning to China this summer. I have a few specific questions I’d like to ask you, but I have not been able to find your email. Could you please supply it? Thank you – Owens

  • ada

    if libyan keyboards don’t allow chinese input…
    how were the welders able to write in to tianya?

  • @ ada: The original post is long gone now, and searching for their names in Google makes the engine freeze up (Baidu just says: ‘nothing. Goodbye.’)

    But if I remember correctly, the original post was written using pinyin, as in: xie dongxi jiandan, duifang dagai hai hui kandemingbai.

    @ Owens: my e-mail’s around, maybe you can try clicking a few internal GVO links.

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