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Four Chinese scientists were killed in Sri Lanka attack

The researchers were in the country last month as part of a joint project to study Indian Ocean weather.

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The Kingsbury hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, after an explosion

Four Chinese scientists were among those who died after an explosion at the Kingsbury hotel in Colombo.Credit: Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Four Chinese researchers who were killed in the terror attacks in Sri Lanka last month were in the country as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a vast infrastructure-building project to connect China to Europe and other parts of the world.

The researchers died when their hotel in Colombo was bombed on 21 April — one in a string of attacks that killed some 250 people.

The four scientists were senior engineers Li Jian and Pan Wenliang from the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology in Guangzhou, and assistant researcher Li Dawei and doctoral student Wang Liwei from the First Institute of Oceanography in Qingdao. Five other Chinese researchers were also injured, according to the Chinese embassy in Colombo.

The group had arrived in the city in mid-April, to prepare, with local scientists from the China–Sri Lanka Joint Center for Research and Education at the University of Ruhuna, for a research cruise on the Chinese ship Experiment 3. The joint cruise intended to study weather in the Indian Ocean and the geology of the sea bed. Although the ship has since left Colombo, it is unclear whether the research project will go ahead as planned.

The Chinese embassy in Colombo condemned the “barbaric acts of terrorism”, and offered their condolences to the victims’ families. It vowed to continue promoting research cooperation between China and Sri Lanka.

Belt & Road project

Although the main focus of the BRI is loaning money to more than 100 participating countries to build roads, railways and maritime ports, scientific cooperation is also a goal. In recent years, partnerships between China and Sri Lanka have increased dramatically, and projects in meteorology, geophysics, medicinal plants and rice genomics are planned or under way.

Some aspects of Sri Lanka’s economic involvement with the BRI have been controversial: critics say that it amounts to a “debt trap” for Sri Lanka, which in 2017 ceded an 85% stake in its Hambantota Port to China Merchants Port Holdings in Hong Kong. Both Chinese and Sri Lankan officials have refuted the criticism. A Chinese company is also constructing an entirely new city, Port City Colombo, on 269 hectares of reclaimed land.

A memorial service for Li and Pan was held in Guangzhou on 6 May. “Their deaths are a major loss to China’s marine research,” the South China Sea Institute said in a statement. “We must turn grief into strength, be unafraid of danger, move forward, continue to promote science and technology to support the ‘Belt and Road’,” it states.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01478-y

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