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Chinese peacekeepers prepare to depart for their United Nations mission to Sudan from an airport in Zhengzhou, central Chinas Henan province, in this Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2007 file photo. (The Associated Press)
Chinese peacekeepers prepare to depart for their United Nations mission to Sudan from an airport in Zhengzhou, central Chinas Henan province, in this Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2007 file photo. (The Associated Press)

China finally getting serious about becoming a good global citizen Add to ...

Brandishing guns and tossing bombs, the mob surrounded the construction site, attacked the foreign workers and tried to make off with everything from cars and computers to cash.

The country was falling apart, and the assault was “very scary,” says one victim, an interpreter who managed to escape the onslaught and find refuge in the home of a local friend.

Four days later, her embassy called and, before long, she was at the airport walking past thousands of others desperate, but unable, to get out.

Monica Li had no such worries. She was Chinese. “There were many people from other countries ... but no one picked them up,” she recalls.

Ms. Li flew directly to Beijing, while others were evacuated on Greek ferries hired by her government. In total, 35,860 Chinese nationals were plucked from danger in just under a week as Libya imploded in 2011. China also carried to safety nearly a thousand others, including citizens of Bangladesh, Nepal and Vietnam.

“The Chinese government is getting stronger and stronger,” Ms. Li says. “In the past, they may not have been able to do something like this. But now they can protect their people. We just feel very lucky.”

Three years later, in the throes of another crisis, Beijing is once again exercising its might. Two-thirds of the 239 people who were on board when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared March 8 were Chinese, and their government has responded with force, committing almost a dozen aircraft, two dozen satellites and a small fleet of ships to the international effort to find the plane.

Although China has long embraced the world’s money, it has been much criticized for doing little to redress a long history of insularity on other fronts. It has been called a “selfish power” that has won international treaties and assistance but been unwilling to offer much in return.

In the search for the missing airplane, however, a new look is emerging, that of a country more interested in the broader good. That the steps taken so far have been small does not diminish their significance.

“There is a growing pattern of China co-operating in disaster relief and search and rescue,” says Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China, of what he considers “building blocks” for something more important.

It is “part of China normalizing the way it deals with the rest of the world, as indeed it must,” he says, noting that over time such efforts “begin to change people’s perceptions.”

For example, as Chinese ships and planes hunt for Flight 370 alongside those of other nations in the southern Indian Ocean, search leader Australia has gone out of its way to take note. Its authorities have said they are “very satisfied” with Beijing’s willingness to co-operate and share information. One Australian naval officer, describing communication with a Chinese ship, said it was “like she was one of our own.”

Generosity that extends even to a bitter rival

The change began long before the plane vanished. China was among the five most generous donors to Japan, arguably its most bitter rival, following the 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima disaster. Its ships patrol the Somali coast in the fight against piracy. A Chinese warship recently helped to escort a shipment of chemical weapons being removed from Syria and, in January, one of its icebreakers played an important role in rescuing people from an icebound Russian ship off Antarctica.

China also plays an increasingly important role at the United Nations. It currently serves in no fewer than 10 peacekeeping missions with 2,188 active peacekeepers, more than any other permanent member of the Security Council and exceeding those from Canada and the U.S. by a factor of 18.

As well, China contributes more than five per cent of UN funding, compared with less than 3 per cent for Canada. Its navy and army have conducted joint disaster-response exercises with Australia and New Zealand, and at least one live-fire naval exercise. Last November, for the first time, members the People’s Liberation Army set foot on U.S. soil – while taking part in a disaster-relief exercise in Hawaii.

“China has very gradually, over the years, broken with what had been the 1970s policy of non-participation and being studiously ‘outside,’” says U.S. analyst Jeffrey Laurenti, a long-time student of the UN. It has begun to act more like “a responsible global citizen,” by taking steps that “build up its credibility and its experience as a major power.”

In part, that’s because China has invested heavily in a navy and air force that can, with increasing ease, project power around the world. It now has a capability to respond that it never before possessed.

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