From Afghanistan to France, Chinese have been attacked and even killed while living abroad. As threats to the security of Chinese businesses, citizens, projects and investments under the Belt and Road development initiative continue, Chinese companies that were hiring local private security companies or Western countries have started to employ more Chinese private security companies, experts said.
Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, told VOA that China’s military reform in 2016 “pushed many former military personnel into the private security sector.”
As a result, according to Yau, in recent years, Chinese private security companies have expanded to other countries along China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which builds infrastructure projects in Asia and in Europe.
As Chinese overseas investment has increased, the footprint of Chinese private security companies has grown, making it a multibillion RMB industry.
Yau said Chinese companies in the BIS are “vulnerable in most of the participating countries where anti-Chinese sentiment is higher.”
âPrivate security is definitely needed as a practical measure,â Yau said. “But the choice to hire Chinese is a top-down decision by Beijing to keep its security activities managed autonomously without interference from third countries.”
One factor, Yau said, is language and the ability to communicate between security personnel and company personnel. Another reason is trust: whether the guards will side with the Chinese or the local people when a conflict breaks out.
The behavior of Chinese private security companies abroad is also changing, influenced by policymakers in Beijing and local tolerance towards them, Yau added.
âIn Kyrgyzstan, for example, they’ve gone from being fairly prominent in advertising their services to a more low-key status due to the public debate about their work,â Yau said. “In Kazakhstan, they have always had a low profile due to the high sensitivity and mistrust of the local population.”
Chinese private security begins
China’s first private security companies have been around at least since the 1990s and have grown since then, according to a report by the Jamestown Foundation.
In 2009, Beijing legalized China’s private security companies by introducing a law called the “Security and Guard Service Administration Regulations,” which allowed companies to use weapons in some of their departments.
Today, 5,200 Chinese private security companies employ more than 4 million security personnel, most of them veterans of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Some 20 to 30 of these companies operate in BRI countries in South and Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Chinese private security companies account for around 10% of orders from Chinese companies operating overseas, according to a report from Zhejiang University.
âHuge amounts of security spending have been paid to Western security companies,â the 2019 report says.
According to Emil Avdaliani, director of Middle East studies at Georgia-based think-tank Geocase, China has relied on private security companies in the past, but the scope and geographic extent of the societies were limited.
“Threats against Chinese assets and nationals were also limited,” Avdaliani told VOA. “The evacuation operations of Chinese nationals from Libya and Yemen were two instances that prompted Beijing to address potential threats in the future.”
In 2011 and 2015, Beijing used the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to evacuate Chinese citizens from Libya and Yemen.
China’s “massive” international economic involvement since President Xi Jinping’s launch of the BRI in 2013 and recent attacks on Chinese workers abroad have prompted Beijing to reconsider expanding the role internationally. Chinese private security companies, which operate primarily in China, according to Avdaliani.
âRecent attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan are just a small number of cases in recent years,â Avdaliani said.
“Therefore, it is likely that the rights (of private security companies) to operate abroad with weapons (will) be extended to meet various challenges.”
Chinese private security companies abroad are also a good tool for Beijing to better position itself in the “ongoing great power competition” with the United States, Avdaliani added.
“The companies will allow Beijing to take and retain the initiative at a time when direct military clashes are rare,” Avdaliani told VOA.