Heavy fighting between rival military groups in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum has put local and foreign civilians in peril. Over the past week, Chinese, American, and other governments implemented evacuation plans to escort their citizens to safety, traversing breakdowns in multiple ceasefires between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. China completed two rounds of large-scale maritime evacuations that carried over 1,300 of its citizens to safety. And while state media outlets celebrated the operation, which was particularly successfully compared to previous ones in Libya and Ukraine, they also converted the event into a propaganda showboat to criticize the U.S.
Jack Lau at the South China Morning Post described how China’s second round of evacuations also included citizens from five other countries:
More than 200 Pakistanis and a Brazilian family were among the latest group of foreign nationals to be evacuated by the Chinese military from war-torn Sudan, as deadly fighting between rival generals there entered a third week.
China has tried its best to evacuate the nationals of “friendly countries” alongside its own from Sudan, the Chinese foreign ministry’s Asia affairs chief Liu Jinsong told the Pakistani ambassador when he arrived to give thanks in Beijing.
The ministry said earlier that the nationals of five countries had left Sudan on Chinese naval ships, but did not name them. It also said more countries were seeking help from China to help evacuate their citizens. [Source]
Felix Brender at the China-Global South Project noted that, compared to China’s evacuation of its citizens from Libya in 2011, this response was much more successful:
Indeed, even a decade on, China’s government is still scarred by its 2011 experience scrambling to evacuate PRC citizens from Libya at the eleventh hour when the Qaddafi government opted for a heavy-handed response to popular protest, plunging the country into civil war.
Just last year, the film Home Coming 万里归途 — a patriotic retelling of the efforts of Chinese diplomats trying to bring Chinese citizens home from a fictional Arab country — was widely received as a dramatization of the PRC’s response to the Libyan crisis. Chinese state media lauded this portrayal of China’s heroic response, despite this portrayal glossing over just how taken aback China was by its own citizens demanding their government rescue them.
China’s response has been much swifter, nimbler, and more coordinated this time in Sudan: On 23rd April, the Chinese embassy in Sudan asked Sudan’s roughly 1000 Chinese residents to register and declare if they would like to be evacuated. The day after, China’s Foreign Office announced the first group of citizens had been taken to safety in Sudan’s neighboring countries, just as other nations were flying out diplomats and/or private citizens. [Source]
Nationalist pride emerged as a common theme in the Chinese media coverage of the evacuation. In a video of Chinese citizens preparing a ground evacuation from Sudan, one man instructed the group, “Please place the Chinese flag on the vehicle, we’re going home happily!” This evokes a scene from the movie “Wolf Warrior II,” in which raising a Chinese flag persuades armed combatants to cease fire and allow a convoy of civilians to pass through an African warzone. Another Chinese man recounting his journey out of Sudan for Phoenix TV declared, “It’s only through relying on the strength of our motherland that we were able to get out.” In the comments of one Weibo post, a netizen wrote, “A Chinese passport may not take you anywhere, but it can take you home anywhere!” A Xinhua feature on China’s evacuation emphasized gratitude towards the “motherland”:
“The strong motherland is our strong backing!” Chen Lihui, an employee of the Blue Sky Hotel in Sudan, repeated in an interview with Xinhua after getting off one of the vessels.
“Thank you, my country! I felt so proud of my motherland when I first saw our navy vessels coming,” Xiao Yongjian, a man from central China’s Hubei Province doing business in Sudan, told Xinhua, bubbling with excitement.
[…] “Our motherland is our harbor,” said Wang Bingbing, a staff member of the China Harbor in Sudan, who, together with his colleagues, provided volunteer services for evacuees in the conflict-ravaged country. [Source]
On social media, Chinese officials highlighted China’s generosity to other countries whose citizens it helped evacuate. The Director General for European Affairs at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted: “China has provided help to foreign nationals in #Sudan, including European citizens. This is done out of our vision of a global community with a shared future.” Another Chinese official shared a video of Pakistanis waving Chinese flags.
State-media workers from Xinhua, China Daily, and CGTN all seized the occasion to also flaunt China’s success and disparage the American evacuation. Khaleda Rahman from Newsweek described the contrasting remarks by each government in the early days of the conflict, which was eagerly cited by pro-China figures online:
Some tweets compared comments given by White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during a briefing on April 18 to those of Mao Ning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson on April 25.
During that briefing three days after the fighting broke out, Jean-Pierre said that Americans “should have no expectations of a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation at the time” and that “it is imperative that U.S. citizens in Sudan make their own arrangements to stay safe.”
Those comments were contrasted with Mao’s answer to a question asking if China was planning to close its embassy given the U.S. and other nations had shuttered its embassy and evacuated diplomats.
“When evacuating from danger, our diplomats will always be the last to leave,” she said. [Source]
Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also piled on with this tweet:
First vs. last — another difference between China and the US: When facing dangers abroad, US officials evacuate themselves first. But Chinese diplomats always help evacuate their people first and are the last to leave. pic.twitter.com/BGUAr23CBO
— Hua Chunying 华春莹 (@SpokespersonCHN) April 29, 2023
U.S. consular staff did subsequently return to Sudan to facilitate a series of evacuation convoys after sharp criticism from abandoned Americans.
The triumphalism of Chinese officials and state media throughout this evacuation contrasts sharply with the botched evacuation of Chinese citizens from Ukraine at the beginning of Russia’s invasion in 2022. At the time, the Chinese government had ample forewarning of other countries’ evacuation activities, but it delayed its own evacuation plans while denying the need for them and promoting patriotism among the public. At least one Chinese student was injured by gunfire while attempting to flee eastern Ukraine.
The Sudanese people are bearing the brunt of this current conflict, and foreign government intervention—or negligence—may prove pivotal to their security. A number of Sudanese citizens are reportedly stranded in Sudan because their passports are locked in the embassies of European countries whose consular staff have already evacuated. Around 334,000 Sudanese people are internally displaced, and an additional 100,000 have fled the country. Despite its longstanding ties to Sudan and recent success in mediating between other rival countries in the region, China will likely not intervene to mediate in Sudan, as Nadya Yeh reported for The China Project:
“Ending the fighting in Sudan is more complex and difficult than convincing the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran to reestablish normal relations,” [David Shinn, a professorial lecturer in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University,] told The China Project. “China’s success in this case offers few lessons for the challenge posed by Sudan’s generals. In any event, China alone does not have the leverage to end the conflict, although it could join a much-broader international coalition to help bring this tragedy to a close.”
[…] “China has treaded very carefully among Sudan’s warring factions since the removal of Bashir…Beijing seems to be pursuing a cautious strategy of continuity, which means they will not be willing to antagonize any actor in Sudan, whether it is the warring generals or the civilians demanding for a return to the transitional process,” [Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University,] told The China Project. “As such, I do not foresee Ambassador [of China to the Horn of Africa] Xue Bing doing anything more than balancing between all sides and avoiding getting drawn into a complicated and unpredictable negotiations process. I expect him to sit this one out and watch from the sidelines.” [Source]