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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:

你们好!
救救我们吧!我们被困在利比亚已经有一年多了,我们在这里都快要疯了,我们是中国合法公民,我们是被驻利比亚中国贸易中心应邀来利比亚搞商场装修的。我们一共来的20几个人,可是一场大火把我几个搞电焊的困在这里了。

Hello!
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.

我们在这里语言不通,又没有工作,在这里真是度日如年,家人也非常的担心,我们也不知道去过驻利比亚中国大使馆多少次了,可是也没有用。我也不知道他们是怎么的,好像是不太爱理我们的事。我们是无辜的,我们在这里没有做违法的事。我们是中国合法公民。我们是2005年2月19日来利比亚的。

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.

  

现在我们就更加无助了,去年我们的老板还给我们生活费,就从今年起,连他不见我们了,老是躲避我们。我们打他电话,电话老是关机。我们为此找过大使馆,我们跟使馆里的人说,我们的帮了。我们现在就想找到我们的老板,求使馆帮我们找找。可是他们说,没有办法,甚至还说叫我们以后不要来找大使馆了,还说使馆是不会给我们饭吃的,也不会给我们睡觉的地方。你说我们在这里不找大使馆还能找中国什么部门帮助呢?你能给我们指点迷津吗?求求你了,我们要想回家。

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.

我们被困在这里的原因基本上就是这样的:我们是2005年2月19日来利比亚的,来这里搞商场的装修,可是还没有工作一个月的时间,我们的商场地下室就起火了。起火的当天,我们都不在商场里面工作,我们在外面栏杆。在起火的这三天的搞电焊的都没有搞过电焊。而地下室是怎么起火的,我们到现在还不知道是怎么回事。

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:

(红英述:这是从论坛上偶尔看到的,深表同情。大使馆的工作人员,伸出你们的援助之手吧!就算不是你们的责任和义务!帮帮同胞们吧!因为文字数量有限制。再发一个邮件)
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:

答:驻利比亚使馆已经对此事进行了处理,具体处理情况请登陆外交部网站驻利比亚使馆信箱.
[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:

这个帖子该是真的,因为我照着文中的电话打了,跟那个郑建波讲到了话,以下是我电话中了解到的事情的大致经过,因为他的口音很重,我很多话听不太明白也不太清楚,也许跟事实还有些许出入。据他说,大火后一个礼拜,他们三个人第一次被警察带去问话,就是做个笔录,了解一下火灾的起因,问完话,他们也就自由离去。火灾后,他们20几个人都没活干了,呆在住的地方,过了50天,才到另一个商场干活,又过了一个月,他们三个又被警察带去问话,这次一直问到晚上五六点,然后就直接送入监狱,关了一个多月,在这期间,每隔两天就开一次庭,每次的问话都一样,就是都要让他们承认是他们工作失误造成起火,他们的老板,也就是中国驻利比亚贸易中心的董事长,吴懂春每次开庭都有到,据说他跟他们一起坐牢,还有一个利比亚人,而且他们的律师也是由他出钱找的当地人,不管是问话还是开庭,都有翻译在场,但是却是不同的人。他们多次请驻当地的大使馆协助帮忙,曾经跟多人打过交道,从吴主任到刘翔(都先后被调回国),现在最常打交道的叫陈平,据说都是用利比亚的法律就是这样,过阵子会好的来打发他们。他们被判了一年徒刑,大使馆的人告诉他们原先的是误判,可是最新近一次开庭仍然维持原判。他们现在只希望大使馆能够想办法让他们回国。他们现在住在老板给他们搭的工寮里,吃饭是当初讲好的每天两块钱。除了他们三个外,其他人都已回国。

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.

要想真的帮助这三人,只有靠当地中国使馆出面,希望我们愿意顶贴的人能够每人发封email给使馆的大使,参赞,把这个帖子forward给他们,给他们施压,告诉他们这件事已经公诸于众了,告诉他们给中国在海外的公民提供保护和帮助是他们的职责所在。我想即便他们可以不在乎那些海外劳工,他们对他们自己的官位总是会在乎的。
===============================================
应该有温洲人和湖南人打电话再了解一下,毕竟他们的口音重,一般人听不明白
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

Then:

答:驻利比亚使馆已经对此事进行了处理,具体处理情况请登陆外交部网站驻利比亚使馆信箱.
[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:

我们被困在这里的原因基本上就是这样的:我们是2005年2月19日来利比亚的,来这里搞商场的装修,可是还没有工作一个月的时间,我们的商场地下室就起火了。起火的当天,我们都不在商场里面工作,我们在外面栏杆。在起火的这三天的搞电焊的都没有搞过电焊。而地下室是怎么起火的,我们到现在还不知道是怎么回事。

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.

现在法院硬说是我们的工作失误而引起火灾的,以此为由判我们一年的牢,我们不服,现在上诉这里的最高法院。

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.

你能给我们想想办法吗?我们这这里求你了。

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

中国驻利比亚大使馆的电话是00218-021-4832914
大使馆李参赞:00218-091-2130116
办公室主任:00218-061-2130117
我的电子邮箱:tanshuibin-163.com@163.com
我们的联系电话是:00218-092-5202391

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: tanshuibin-163.com@163.com [that could be a typo and the actual address is tanshuibin@163.com]

来利比亚的20几个人现在就剩下我们三个人了,今天在这里求求你们了,要帮帮我们。

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

谭水斌:湖南省泸溪县兴隆场镇甘田坪村长冲七组,护照号:G095718576
郑建波:浙江温州龙湾区蒲州镇下埠村,护照号:120052419
谭平等:湖南省泸溪县兴隆场镇甘田坪村长冲七组,护照号:G095718565

Hukous:
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

红英述:以上是我在论坛上偶尔看到的,深表同情,且对你们在使馆的态度深表愤怒。作为同胞就算不是义务和责任,也帮帮他们吧!
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!

Then:

答:驻利比亚使馆已经对此事进行了处理,具体处理情况请登陆外交部网站驻利比亚使馆信箱.
[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.

大家为什么把大使馆想的那么坏,都是不知道情况,乱猜测,如果我没到过利比亚,不知道利比里亚中国贸易城的情况,没有得到中国驻利比亚大使馆的帮助,如果不知道温州商人吴是个什么东西,我也会这样想,事实不是这样的。
利比亚商城着火,吴采取欺骗的手法,不通知我们,把我们骗到利比亚,把我们放到一个地方,房价特高,后来知道他们吃了回扣,当我们知道着火后,整天对我们说马上就要开业,,不给我们退租金,在利比亚我最后弹尽粮绝,是大使馆帮我回国,商务处领导把他们的方便面给我们吃,我一个月没吃蔬菜,在吴的房子洗一个西红柿都不行,吴在利不务正业,整天搞男女关系,这样的人还恶人先告人,利用有人对政府的不信任,乱说。现在还欠我们的租金。
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:

温州商人吴某应该承担一切责任,包括装修人员的工资.生活费,商户的租金.损失.而不是把人推到大使馆,找大使闹,又让人在网上散布不真实的消息,让国家的声誉受到损失,吴某不是中国人.
利比亚是一个人治国家,不是一个法治国家,吴某如果愿花钱,事情也到不了这样;吴某你在家花钱修路,用钱买光环,你把工人工资不给,商户的租金.损失不给;你一天不务正业,和那个去过法国女人乱来;你不是个男人.
你现在应该站出来,应该承担一切责任,而不是让国家替你埋单,你不是一个人.
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.

Then:

答:驻利比亚使馆已经对此事进行了处理,具体处理情况请登陆外交部网站驻利比亚使馆信箱.
[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.”

5 comments

  • 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?

    (http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/2007/01/31/china-out-of-libya/#more-20289)

  • 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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