Chinese Abroad Look To Private Security Companies To Protect Them As They Become The Target Of Crime And Terrorism

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with the Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bruno Tshibala Nzenze, at the Great People’s Palace in Beijing on September 6, 2018. A wave of Chinese emigration and investment through Africa, encouraged by Beijing, is only increasing in the framework of the “Belt and Road” initiative.POOL / Getty Images

It was in the middle of the night that 12 men approached a Chinese mining complex near the town of Likasi. Just after 2:30 p.m., they dug a hole in the wire mesh and slipped through, carrying AK-47s and metal pipes. Once inside, they moved quickly through the camp to the security office, where they overpowered and tied up the guards.

The camp was at the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s copper and cobalt industry, but instead of stealing valuable minerals, the gang grabbed computers, cell phones and around $ 18,500. in cash, according to a local Chinese Business Association report shared with The Globe and Mail. By the time local police arrived to help, the thieves had already escaped with their loot.

He Hongwei, spokesperson for the Lualaba Chamber of Commerce, which represents dozens of Chinese companies in southern DRC, said the situation in the country was increasingly “very dangerous”.

“The number of crimes is definitely on the increase,” he added.

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Thousands of Chinese workers live in the DRC, mostly in the mineral-rich east and south, as part of a wave of emigration and investment across Africa encouraged by Beijing that is only increasing in under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping’s sweeping trade and infrastructure project.

But with this increased presence abroad comes an increased risk, especially in developing countries, where Chinese citizens can be attractive targets for thefts and kidnappings. Along parts of the BRI, which spans much of Africa and Central Asia, there is also a growing risk of terrorism.

This raises questions about China’s ability to protect its citizens abroad, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maintaining a small footprint outside East Asia and Beijing wary of anything that looks like an intervention.

To bridge the gap, companies and groups like Mr. He have started hiring Chinese private security companies (PSCs) that are widely staffed and run by former members of the Chinese military and police.

Companies like Britain’s G4S, which employs 800,000 people and generates billions in revenue, have a long history of ensuring the safety of companies operating in hazardous environments. Businesses often have to navigate a web of regulations to operate, especially in Africa, which has a long history of mercenary-fueled conflict.

CSPs large and small typically focus on providing threat assessments and logistics, outsourcing local nationals to work as armed guards or working with local police and military as needed.

“Effective private security is not having a lot of people with guns, of course you need them, but it’s the last part of the solution, you need local intelligence, knowledge,” Alessandro said. Arduino, senior researcher at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.

“Chinese companies often lack an understanding of the local culture, which can create its own security concerns. “

In a recent report, Paul Nantulya, associate researcher at the African Center for Strategic Studies, wrote that CSPs “provide the Chinese government with tools it can use to demonstrate its commitment to protecting foreign interests, while resisting pressure. to deploy the more robust PLA.

Mr. Nantulya said there are currently 20 Chinese PSCs licensed to operate overseas, which employ around 3,200 people. This is more than the total number of PLA peacekeeping troops deployed overseas, mainly in Africa, according to China’s Foreign Ministry. Since 2015, Chinese companies have spent more than US $ 10 billion on security per year, a number that is only increasing as more companies expand internationally, especially along the BIS.

All PSCs and private military contractors “are a revolving door between military, police and intelligence,” Arduino said. However, when it comes to Chinese PSCs, the relationship is particularly close. This is true both in the nature of the ownership and personnel of companies, and of their largest customers, which are almost all state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The Hong Kong-listed Frontier Services Group (FSG), one of the largest Chinese players in Africa, is 100% owned by CITIC Group, the Chinese state-owned investment company.

But while Chinese CSPs have state backing, they remain a politically sensitive subject, which was evident in the reporting of this article. The Globe contacted nearly a dozen Chinese PSCs operating overseas, none of whom accepted an interview.

A representative said that “I would have spoken to you immediately if you were a Chinese media outlet,” but said an interview with a foreign journalist would have to be approved by his superiors. They ultimately chose not to comment.

This could be due to what Helena Legarda, senior analyst at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), describes as “the interests of Chinese state-owned enterprises operating abroad.” [clashing] with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Blackwater comes up a lot in Chinese writings on the question of [PSCs] as an example of what not to do, ”she said, referring to the Nisour Square massacre in 2007, when employees of US military contractor Blackwater shot at a crowd as they escorted a convoy from the US Embassy in Iraq, killing 17 civilians.

The incident was devastating both to Blackwater’s reputation (the company has since changed its name twice) and to US-Iraqi relations, sparking widespread condemnation and retaliatory attacks.

Disasters have always occurred involving Chinese security companies. In 2018, two Chinese guards were jailed in Zimbabwe for shooting and injuring the son of a lawmaker. In the same year, Kenyan authorities arrested five Chinese nationals found in “possession of military equipment” considered a threat to national security, according to local media.

The Chinese industry is much younger than its international rivals and also relies on a smaller pool of veterans, especially those with combat experience overseas. The lack of experience and sophistication within the industry creates a problem, especially as Chinese overseas “increasingly fall into the same high threat category as their American, Israeli and European counterparts. Mr. Arduino wrote in a recent report.

“Chinese businessmen in Africa are at increased risk of kidnapping, they have a huge target on their back,” he said. The globe. “There is this perception that every Chinese is a billionaire.”

Ordinary Chinese workers are often far better off than the average residents of the countries in which they operate. Again this year, two Chinese gold miners were kidnapped in Nigeria, their captors demanding $ 30,000 for their release.

Mr. He, the representative of the chamber of commerce, said that there was a feeling of impunity among many criminals. “They think the Chinese can’t do anything against them,” he said. “I think the reason for the insecurity is not the lack of protection, but the fact that we ourselves are not allowed to shoot. It is difficult to have a great deterrent effect on the bandits, and the local police will at most scare them and let them go.

His frustration was testament to a growing disconnect between how the Chinese government and its citizens abroad perceive the situation and Beijing’s obligations, a disconnect that could eventually force a rethinking of how China approaches security at home. foreigner.

“This is a huge problem that all Chinese private security companies are talking about,” Arduino said. “There is a perception among many people in China that as soon as you wave the Chinese flag, people stop shooting, or they think they can just pick up the phone and the embassy will come and rescue them.”

Nonetheless, Beijing has strongly promoted its ability to protect Chinese people abroad. A very popular propaganda film, Wolf Warrior II, ends with a photo of a Chinese passport and the text “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China. When you encounter danger in a foreign land, don’t give up! Please remember, behind your back stands a strong homeland. “

The contradiction is sharp enough when Chinese citizens are targeted by criminals, but it could be a major problem for Beijing if there is a terrorist incident in the future, Ms. Legarda said.

“China and Chinese citizens have never been the target of terrorism abroad,” she said. “What happens nationally in China in terms of public opinion if we start to see such attacks and Beijing does not act? “

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