As China’s engagement with African countries has grown over the past several years, Beijing is turning to security contractors to protect its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, citizens, and diplomats. Chinese security contractors are active in a growing number of African countries; they mostly work for Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and increasingly with African security forces and security companies. They protect oil and gas installations, railways, mines, construction sites, and even Chinese embassies.
China has long claimed to “keep a low profile” and uphold its doctrine of “non-interference” in its foreign policy, and it has largely declined to deploy its armed forces abroad. But these diplomatic tenets are now being severely tested, as China’s rapidly expanding interests in Africa have created a need for security contractors to provide protection for those interests. Over 200,000 Chinese workers have relocated to Africa in search of opportunities along the BRI as of 2018, bringing the total number of Chinese immigrants to over 1 million. Furthermore, over 10,000 Chinese companies were operating on the continent as of 2017.
China’s economic power in Africa is unmistakable; in 2017 alone, Chinese SOEs generated about $51 billion in revenue from local BRI projects, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. As of 2020, China was responsible for more construction projects in Africa than France, Italy, and the United States combined. However, China’s expanded global engagements are fraught with risks. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences notes in its 2020 assessment that 84 percent of China’s BRI investments are in medium- to high-risk countries.
To protect its investments, Beijing has invested in and trained security contractors. As of 2013, China had around 4,000 registered security firms with an estimated 4.3 million employees, mostly demobilized military and police personnel. Phoenix International, a Chinese think tank with strong SOE ties, reports that likely no more than twenty of these firms conduct activities overseas protecting SOEs and other Chinese interests. By 2013, they employed around 3,200 personnel, according to the Germany-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, more than the number of United Nations (UN) peacekeepers China furnishes, a figure that stood at 2,534 troops and police as of June 2020.
The true number of Chinese private security contractors, however, could be much higher. Chinese SOEs spend about $10 billion annually on security, according to the Beijing-based China Overseas Security and Defense Research Center.
The International Data Corporation reports that China, as well as Latin America and Asia-Pacific countries, will account for the largest growth in overseas security spending between 2019 and 2023. From this perspective, China’s strategic shift from keeping a low profile to claiming global leadership sets the stage for the expansion of Chinese overseas security contracting.
The Limits of Chinese Power Projection
The need to secure Chinese investments and citizens in Africa has increased, but Beijing is unlikely to deploy its own forces due to concerns about its image and other political and geopolitical considerations. That being said, safeguarding overseas interests and protecting Chinese nationals, organizations, and institutions are identified as core missions in a 2019 white paper called “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” the country’s latest official strategic guidance. These aims also feature in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Action Plan (2019–2021) as top priorities in BRI-related security cooperation.
General Wang Weixing, director of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science, China’s top military research institute, has said that the goal of the PLA is to “become a global strategic force.” However, the PLA also faces limitations on its ability to accomplish these tasks. Zhou Bo, a senior fellow at the PLA Academy of Military Science explained that the PLA “hasn’t all of the capabilities required to safeguard its overseas interests.” Yue Gang, a former senior staffer at the PLA General Staff Department has delineated the PLA’s challenges. For one thing, Yue said that “the PLA’s transportation capacity is insufficient,” as existing craft are “ill-suited to carrying out large-scale evacuations.” Yue went on to say that “China’s forward military presence is weak” compared to that of the U.S. Navy, which is “deployed worldwide and is therefore capable of engaging in peacekeeping missions or wars in coastal regions.”
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Military Commission, the body that runs the PLA, has coined two terms to guide debates about these weaknesses and develop responses: the “Two Incompatibles” and the “Two Inabilities.” The former highlights gaps between the PLA’s capabilities to ensure national security compared to those of the world’s advanced militaries, while the latter posits that the PLA’s military capabilities do not meet the requirements of carrying out its new “historic missions.” China’s authoritative military writings also reflect a strong aversion to stationing and basing Chinese troops abroad without an international mandate, a position that is rooted in Beijing’s long-standing principle of noninterference.
The issue of basing always comes up in internal discussions on Chinese overseas operations. However, every defense white paper the PLA has issued from 1995 to 2019 frowns on foreign basing, a basic policy that has created a debate within the PLA on how China’s increasingly assertive, expansive, and competitive foreign policy can be reconciled with its advertised commitment to keeping a low profile and not interfering in other countries’ political and security affairs.
A middle-ground position appears to have emerged in recent years that seeks to assert China’s resurgence as a great power while avoiding actions that could portray it as an imperial power bent on dominating other countries. China prefers to maintain a flexible security mix involving the use of PLA troops in nontraditional roles such as peacekeeping and antipiracy, along with paramilitary forces, contractors, and local forces.
Additionally, the PLA is inclined to use commercial or dual-use facilities that can provide limited basing options. This matches China’s aversion to mimicking Western overseas basing and its desire to project the narrative of its peaceful rise. Moreover, there are strong continental norms in many parts of Africa against foreign basing, as evidenced by a 2016 African Union (AU) resolution warning members to be “circumspect” when entering into agreements that could lead to more foreign bases. Security contractors take on added significance in light of all these considerations, as they can handle tasks that would be too controversial for government forces while relieving growing pressure within China for the PLA to be used more proactively abroad.
Why Security Contractors?
Security contractors benefit China in three respects. First, they provide a more hands-on approach to protecting China’s overseas interests given that local security forces are not always reliable due to capacity constraints and political complications. Second, they offer the Chinese government tools it can wield to demonstrate its commitment to protecting overseas interests. while at the same time resisting pressure to deploy the PLA more robustly. Third, contractors create employment for veterans, an issue of paramount importance to China, given the government’s complicated relationship with demobilized servicemen and women in the country who now number 57 million. In recent years, veterans have mounted over fifty major protests demanding better benefits. Such demonstrations have undermined the CCP’s standing and threatened the PLA’s latest phase of demobilization and modernization. Security firms help relieve some of that pressure.
China’s global security contracting portfolio has grown tremendously since the industry was legalized in 2009. While most Chinese contractors offer passive security services, a growing number play more active roles such as collecting intelligence and conducting surveillance against potential threats. Chinese security contractors also work closely with local military forces whom they supply with advanced security equipment and occasionally accompany in the field. For example, in 2012, unidentified Chinese contractors widely thought to be from the VSS Security Group helped the Sudanese military rescue twenty-nine kidnapped Chinese oil workers in the province of South Kordofan. The Chinese contractors were reportedly unarmed, but they worked as advisers to Sudanese troops.
Under Chinese and most local laws, Chinese security contractors are forbidden from bearing arms. Li Xin, who served in China’s Special Forces prior to joining the VSS Security Group in Sudan, explained that having tight working relationships with local partners is key, given these restrictions: “This [being unable to carry a gun] poses a hurdle for us, but I can use what I learned in the army to give security suggestions and make advanced plans, and I also supervise foreign security staff.”
The provision of mostly advisory services differentiates Chinese security contractors from Russian firms, which often actively engage in combat operations. However, a select few Chinese contractors are allowed to carry weapons and can therefore offer services besides consulting and equipping. For example, the Overseas Security Guardians and the Hua Xin Zhong An Group provide armed maritime escorts to Chinese fleets transiting African waters. Both operate a network of what they call “maritime logistics bases” clustered around the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea, as well as Southern Africa (see appendix for more information).
Hua Xin Zhong An was also the first Chinese security firm to be certified by the International Code of Conduct Association’s (ICOCA) under its International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers. This Swiss-based association sets internationally recognized standards to ensure respect for international legal rules on the use of force and against sexual violence, human trafficking, and child labor. Seven countries, including the United States; 100 private security firms, including several from the United States, the United Kingdom (UK), and the European Union; and thirty-nine civil society observers are ICOCA members. Hua Xin Zhong An’s membership in ICOCA “cement[s] our market position as a truly internationalized company with a broad geographic footprint,” noted the group’s chief executive officer (CEO), Weihong Yin, an ex-PLA officer. Other ICOCA-certified Chinese security firms include the China Security and Technology Group and Hanwei International Security Group.
While a few Chinese firms have attained this certification and also incorporated some international management practices, the vast majority lag far behind their global counterparts. Unlike their Western peers who benefit from stable employment, China’s security contractors are paid for specific deliverables on a case-by-case basis and are generally not kept on payroll as permanent staff or given fringe benefits. This business practice runs contrary to rules spelled out in China’s September 2009 “Regulation on the Administration of Security and Guarding Services” that require these firms to offer their employees benefits. Furthermore, the Chinese industry norm is to offer services at rock-bottom prices to secure as many contracts as possible, thereby limiting costs on compensation and benefits.
As a result, China’s security contracting industry has an inordinately high turnover rate, as the industry is not viewed as offering serious long-term career paths. A study by the China Africa Research Initiative found that the attrition rate in the Chinese security contracting industry can jump as high as 65 percent during the Chinese New Year holiday. As a result of these drawbacks, as well as the fact that Chinese contractors often lack the educational and international experience of their Western counterparts, the sector suffers from low standards. SOEs have scrambled to fill the turnover gap in two ways: recruiting Western contractors despite their higher costs compared to their Chinese counterparts and the strong internal norms that favor hiring Chinese nationals, and establishing vehicles through which wholly- or majority-owned Chinese firms can tap Western expertise on a case-by-case basis.
A new breed of hybrid firms has recently emerged to exploit this demand, as discussed in the appendix. The most prominent ones are Frontier Services Group and China Overseas Security Services. The latter is registered in the UK as a “Chinese-controlled company utilising Western security expertise.” The former was established by ex-U.S. Navy Seal Erik Prince but is a wholly-owned subsidiary of China International Trust Investment Corporation (CITIC) Group, one of China’s largest SOE conglomerates.
Case Study of DeWe Security Service Group
Observing the operations of DeWe Security Service Group (also sometimes called DWSS or the Dulwich Group), one of the most well-known overseas Chinese firms, provides some insight on how Chinese security contractors operate. The company was established in 2011 by former PLA and Peoples Armed Police (PAP) officers who worked together during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Its main government clients include the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Commerce, and Ministry of Education, as well as Hanban, the agency responsible for the country’s Confucius Institutes. It also handles security for the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation, China Communications Construction Company, China State Construction Engineering Corporation (formerly known as the China State Construction Group), and China Development Bank, all of which operate across Africa, accounting for DeWe’s expanding security footprint in countries like Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, and Nigeria.
DeWe also works closely with African police and military forces and domestic security companies, selling security technologies, training in public safety and onsite protection, and developing security plans. Since 2011, DeWe has carried out over 3,000 in-country trainings for local partners, according to its website. It also claims to have trained over 70,000 Chinese contractors and worked with local security forces to successfully handle more than 1,000 incidents involving overseas Chinese targets.
DeWe has been enlisted to protect a $4 billion natural gas project in Ethiopia, the “largest project” that Chinese overseas security contractors have been hired to secure, according to an investigation conducted by the Financial Times in 2017 that gave it unprecedented access to the group’s management and operations. The contract was awarded by China’s Poly-GCL Petroleum Group Holdings, a major player in the global oil and gas industry. In Kenya, DeWe trains local guards along the $3.8 billion Standard Gauge Railway connecting Mombasa, Nairobi, and Naivasha under a contract with the China Roads and Bridges Corporation. This directly supports the activities of China’s Ministry of Public Security, which coordinated the training of Kenya’s elite railway protection force. In South Sudan, DeWe handles security for the China National Petroleum Corporation, which operates that country’s oil-producing and export infrastructure. DeWe contractors have, however, been called into action before. In July 2016, Chinese peacekeepers stationed in Juba, South Sudan, remained in their bases during fierce fighting that left 330 Chinese workers stranded between warring militias in ten different locations around the city. Such inaction came despite the fact that protecting oil workers and assets is included in the peacekeepers’ UN mandate. The job of evacuating the workers was left to DeWe.
However, DeWe’s personnel were unarmed, and its facilities could not be used as assembly points because they lacked ballistic protection. DeWe’s senior management then enlisted armed South Sudanese as backup and ordered the stranded Chinese nationals to hunker down where they were. Only when Ugandan forces secured the airport did the extraction proceed. Beijing’s close ties to the Uganda People’s Defense Force played a major role in the success of this operation.
Dominant Debates in Africa about China’s Security Contractors
First, African governments and citizens tend to view Chinese security contractors as part of the Chinese government, not independent entities. Chinese security contractors are explicit about their role in advancing Beijing’s security goals. An internet search on “Chinese security contractors in Africa” yields several videos and images of heavily armed Chinese personnel working with African security forces in a wide range of countries, sending a message that their activities are sanctioned by the Chinese government.
Security contractors are also generally viewed as being part of China’s larger arms marketing push, given that they also advertise and sell security equipment to local partners. Sometimes their parent companies or clients appear at major international arms exhibitions alongside China’s leading defense firms. Additionally, Chinese security providers must by law be either wholly owned or majority-owned state proprietorships, or at least 51 percent of their registered capital must be government-owned. Furthermore, they are required to cooperate and operate “under the guidance of the public security organs,” further confirming the state’s heavy involvement in shaping how security contractors operate.
Second, the concentration of Chinese investments in insecure countries is a major driver of the growing presence of security contractors. As Beijing readily admits, most of its SOEs operate in unstable environments, accounting in part for the growth of the security contracting industry, which also explains why contractors have mostly been noticed in countries experiencing civil strife or unrest. For example, Chinese security firms evacuated Chinese oil workers in Sudan in 2012 and South Sudan in 2016, while two Chinese security contractors were imprisoned in Zimbabwe in 2017 for shooting and wounding the son of a former parliamentarian.
In 2018, two suspected Chinese security contractors were arrested in Zambia for allegedly providing illegal training and supplying uniforms and military equipment to a local security company in the tourist town of Livingstone, where Chinese SOEs dominate the mining sector. Chinese enterprises also dominate Zambia’s larger mining industry, but their operations are frequently rocked by disputes over pay and working conditions, contributing in part to anti-Chinese sentiment and, on numerous occasions, violence. The spread of Chinese investments in insecure areas is further reflected by the fact that the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea, two of Africa’s most unsafe maritime hotspots, have been a magnet for Chinese SOEs and security contractors.
Third, although Chinese security firms are far less visible than Western or Russian ones, they are viewed in the same negative light due to the poor reputation of foreign security contractors on the continent. Africa’s abiding disdain for foreign security companies stems from the controversial involvement of foreign mercenaries in some of the continent's most protracted civil wars.
Notably, African debates on security issues tend not to distinguish between mercenaries, who mostly operate as soldiers for hire, private security companies (which provide everything from security consulting to training), and private military companies (which undertake military operations). Continental discussions on the privatization of the use of force still revolve around the activities of groups like South Africa’s Executive Outcomes and Britain’s Sandline International, many years after they were disbanded. The widespread human rights violations they were accused of carrying out during civil wars in Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are reminders of what could go wrong if African countries do not enforce their laws on foreign-owned security companies.
Chinese security contractors carry similar risks of negative publicity as their Western, Russian, and South African counterparts, given the nexus between unregulated contracting, corruption, state fragility, conflict, and violence. For example, a September 2019 investigative report by Sentry, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that monitors war profiteering, found that a multinational oil consortium in South Sudan led by the China National Petroleum Corporation supplied fuel, hard currency, and even armored personnel carriers to pro-government militias to protect its operations in the country’s oil fields. Some of these armed groups went on to commit violence against civilians. Internal records reviewed by Sentry also show that this consortium, which was placed under American sanctions in 2018, funneled money to pay the college tuition of the son of a top general placed under UN sanctions for acts that “threatened South Sudan’s peace and stability.”
In June 2020, China’s mining operations in Southern Africa once again received attention when a Chinese manager at a mine in the Zimbabwean city of Gweru was charged with attempted murder and firearms violations for allegedly shooting and injuring two local workers in a dispute over pay and working conditions, a dynamic that has become common in the Zimbabwean mining industry. It is not clear if he was a security contractor, but the fact that he carried weapons and knew how to discharge them raised suspicions that he may well have been. Besides, Chinese security contractors also staff senior security management positions in many SOEs, particularly those involved in high-risk activities such as mining.
One security manager for a Chinese SOE interviewed for the aforementioned Financial Times report said that all private security contracts signed by Chinese SOEs prohibit employees from carrying weapons, as the Chinese government “doesn’t want [a] Blackwater [incident on its hands].” He presumably meant that the Chinese government wishes to avoid incidents in which private security contractors take the lives of local residents, like in the case of Blackwater, the infamous U.S. private security company whose contractors were accused of killing seventeen Iraqi citizens during convoy escort operations in Baghdad on September 16, 2007. Beijing has been keen to avoid similar incidents and has reacted quickly to situations involving its own security contractors and SOEs. In the Gweru case, the embassy distanced itself from the company in question, issuing the following statement: “Any possible illegal acts and persons who violate the law should not be shielded.”
The embassy, however, called the incident isolated, according to the Business and Human Rights Center, praised the long-standing relationship between China and Zimbabwe, and “call[ed] upon all relevant sides to safeguard it jealously and carefully.” The Chinese community in Gweru mobilized resources to compensate the victims in an effort to defuse public anger over the incident and assuage negative local sentiments about some China’s mining investments in Zimbabwe.
African perspectives on Chinese security contractors and the investments they are paid to secure matter for three key reasons. First, they affect and are affected by public opinion in African countries beyond elite narratives, which makes the policy debates on China-Africa relations more inclusive. Second, they add nuance to continental perceptions on China’s security strategy, thereby providing some indicators on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of China’s image-building and soft power campaigns. Third, they bring the activities of Chinese security contractors closer to public view, and in so doing, promote greater scrutiny of their impact on public safety and human security.
Many accounts of China-Africa ties paint a picture of African acquiescence to Chinese demands. But that picture is incomplete and misleading. In reality, African agency in China-Africa relations is evident in civil society, especially in terms of groups working on economic justice, debt, and extractive industries. Advocates often deal with security issues, as they tend to focus on large Chinese SOEs with major projects that are protected by security contractors. For instance, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) has launched numerous lawsuits to compel the government to provide status reports about major foreign investments, a right enshrined in the environmental justice provisions of Zimbabwe’s constitution. Its latest lawsuit, launched in March 2020, focuses on the $3 billion Sengwa coal power plant, a massive project financed and built by the China Gezhouba Group, whose security is coordinated by the China Security Technology Group.
Similar litigation by the Kenya Law Society resulted in a June 2020 ruling by the High Court of Kenya that declared the Standard Gauge Railway contract between Kenya and the China Roads and Bridges Corporation—DeWe’s major client in the country—illegal. Notably, a security manager for the China Roads and Bridges Corporation was among those charged with fraud in a scam that allegedly involved the daily theft of around $10,000. In Ghana, environmental activists have sued the government to block a deal that will see Sinohydro, China’s state-owned hydropower and construction giant, finance $2 billion worth of railway, road, and bridge networks in Ghana in exchange for 5 percent of the country’s bauxite reserves, although the bauxite figure may well be higher given that the exact amount to be mined is difficult to ascertain.
Civil society groups in Guinea have launched similar petitions over a $20 billion deal that would provide China access to its bauxite reserves (Guinea accounts for “almost half” of China’s bauxite imports). These are the kind of high-value SOE projects that come with huge security budgets. Their legal troubles could foreclose business opportunities for security firms and even bring the details of specific contracts to the public’s attention as strategic litigation involving Chinese and other foreign investments gains steam in several African jurisdictions.
China’s SOEs face another major constraint; they are simply too large, entrenched, and unwieldy to properly regulate. This problem is compounded by the fact that the Chinese government’s involvement in sanctioning some of the highly controversial projects that have come to light in recent years is not always clear, and this often reflects poorly on China and leaves room for speculation. Mindful of these risks, the Chinese government drew up a list of all approved overseas investments and set out new rules governing them at the Second Belt and Road International Forum in April 2019. At this meeting, Xi Jinping spelled out a series of changes in how BRI projects should be managed and executed, including competitive bidding, open procurement, and better risk assessment and project selection. The new measures he announced feed into the country’s massive SOE restructuring program, begun in 2016, and aim to streamline the sector and increase government control of it.
China’s engagements in Africa will continue to grow in the coming decades. Beijing has leapt ahead of its competitors in terms of its deployment of cultural institutes, media presence, training and educational opportunities for Africans, and its portfolio of megaprojects. However, the risks that come with this expanding presence will not disappear. Around the world, 350 security incidents involving Chinese citizens occurred between 2010 and 2015, according to China’s Ministry of State Security, ranging from kidnappings and terrorist attacks to xenophobic violence against Chinese nationals and businesses.
Research conducted by the Paper, a Chinese state-owned digital newspaper, in 2015 found that 60 percent of all attacks against Chinese overseas workers occurred in Africa. As an indication of how seriously Beijing is taking these risks, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Action Plan (2019–2021) commits China and its African partners to improving their ability to “safeguard the security of major domestic economic projects, and in the meantime, protect the safety of Chinese nationals, Chinese companies, and major projects.”
Several incidents have heightened the sense of insecurity that is becoming prevalent among Chinese immigrants in Africa. These include rampant attacks on Chinese businesses in central Uganda in 2018, the abduction of Chinese miners in the Nigerian state of Osun in 2019, and a wave of revenge attacks against Chinese nationals over the alleged mistreatment of African communities during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Guangdong Province in 2020. In light of these trends, understanding the character of China’s security contractors and mapping their trajectories will be a key addition to China-Africa studies. Below are four key takeaways that should contribute to the debate.
Be Mindful of the Chinese Context
China has signed the Montreux Document, which sets forth state responsibilities in regulating security companies. As previously mentioned, some Chinese security firms are certified by the ICOCA. However, the term “private security companies” cannot be applied wholesale in the Chinese context. The Chinese model is premised on tight legal, administrative, and political control by the CCP, which often tasks contractors with supporting China’s geopolitical agenda along with the SOEs they are enlisted to protect.
While distinct in its own right, China’s strategy in some respects resembles the Russian model, whereby security contractors are purposefully built to serve the Russian military. By contrast, European or U.S. contractors function as commercial entities and do not necessarily operate at the behest of their governments. This concept of private-sector autonomy is alien to the Chinese model. To be sure, the day-to-day management of Chinese security firms varies, and many appear to work independently, as monitoring their day-to-day operations is virtually impossible. Having said that, they are ultimately required to respond to state and CCP directives.
Given this reality, the term Chinese security contractors is more applicable from an analytical standpoint than Chinese private security companies, as it reflects the Chinese political context which is built on a fundamentally different conception of the relationship between the state and society.
Don’t Be Misled By Small Numbers
Deployments of Chinese security contractors are small in comparison to those of other countries. For example, the United States hires between 400,000 and 500,000 contractors annually, according to annual Congressional reports provided by the Department of Defense. Russia, according to various assessments, is able to field “from 100,000 to 150,000” contractors (mostly mercenaries) in any given year. Although the Chinese contracting industry currently does not match these numbers, the expansion of Beijing’s global influence means the number of Chinese contractors will likely continue to grow steadily. Moreover, China is not confident that its security needs can be adequately met by peacekeeping troops and the forces of host nations. Beijing will, therefore, likely opt to increase the competencies of its overseas security firms while limiting the use of the PLA to nontraditional security roles.
Don’t Overestimate China’s Ability to Control All Its SOEs and Contractors
While China’s ability to control its society and industry actors is extensive, and in many ways unparalleled, its monitoring capabilities should not be overstated. “No nation has ever dealt with such a huge task where each [overseas embassy] employee has to protect 200,000 citizens,” said Zhai Leiming, the deputy director general of the Department of Consular Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was referring to “the disparity between the total number of Chinese consulate staff and the total number of Chinese [nationals and companies] going abroad every year,” according to a Global Times op-ed.
As discussed earlier, China’s SOEs are undergoing restructuring aimed at allowing the CCP to tighten its control over the sector, improve coordination, and enforce discipline. The sheer number of SOEs, however, coupled with the overlapping roles and responsibilities of the institutions meant to monitor them, make some of these measures impractical.
Moreover, while SOEs fall under state control, it is not always clear if all of their actions and decisions are made or sanctioned by Chinese authorities. For example, DeWe’s decision to enlist armed locals during the fighting in Juba could have created a major diplomatic crisis if it had gone wrong. Yet company executives made the decision anyway in light of the large numbers of Chinese nationals in distress. The key takeaway is that there are many gray areas when it comes to the degree of control the Chinese government exercises over Chinese SOEs. This might allow for plausible deniability, especially when it comes to security contracting firms which, by definition, are also state-owned entities. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the government is ultimately responsible for their conduct.
Recognize African Agency
Africans tend to view foreign security contractors as operating in the shadows without proper accountability, a perception rooted in Africa’s complicated history with mercenaries. In China’s case, these perceptions are amplified by Beijing’s engagement strategy that has traditionally been dominated by top Chinese officials and local elites. Building greater accountability in China’s relationships with African countries will, therefore, be key to creating an environment where Chinese SOEs, security contractors, and their local partners feel compelled to adhere to national regulations and observe local norms of public safety and security.
Notably, China’s expanded push into Africa has also witnessed the steady growth of independent pan-African platforms dedicated to real-time policy debate, knowledge sharing, research, and regular commentary on China’s ties with African countries. Furthermore, the combination of a lively civil society and media landscape coupled with judicial action in a growing number of countries has demonstrated the public’s ability to heighten awareness around some of China’s most important investments on the continent. African governments are starting to pay attention to the growing number of lawsuits lodged against them and their Chinese partners as well as the policy debates that are taking place within the wider China-Africa studies community.
In September 2020, the government of Zimbabwe issued a ban on mining activities in national parks after ZELA petitioned the High Court over two Chinese firms that secured licenses to mine coal in Hwange National Park. Even as it enacted the ban, a spokesperson of the president of Zimbabwe launched a bitter attack against ZELA, declaring that national parks were “not God-ordained.” Keenly mindful of its image, the Chinese embassy welcomed the ban and, according to secondhand media reports of its position, urged Zimbabwe to craft laws designed to “promote transparency in the . . . mining sector” and “channel mining proceeds into improving the lives of ordinary citizens.”
This incident underscores the importance of public engagement given the new insights, nuances, and sense of local agency that have entered discussions of Chinese diplomacy vis-à-vis African countries in recent years, and Beijing’s extreme sensitivity to how its intentions are perceived and characterized by Africans themselves. With the exception of a few Chinese-led agencies that adhere to international multilateral guidelines, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s foreign assistance is regulated exclusively through bilateral agreements negotiated between individual governments on a case-by-case basis. On the surface, China’s sheer size, influence, and economic power preclude its weaker African partners from asserting agency, securing the best terms, and redressing disputes outside bilateral dispute resolution mechanisms. However, China’s self-described claims of win-win cooperation are premised on mutual dependence as a basis for engagement, meaning Beijing must also satisfy its partners’ interests to some degree to secure its own goals.
A 2019 field study on African states’ negotiating behavior conducted by Folashade Soule found that, contrary to common perceptions, poorer countries like Liberia and Benin have leveraged specific aspects of Chinese dependency and Beijing’s sensitivity to being portrayed in a negative light to secure far more favorable agreements than more powerful countries like Kenya and Ethiopia have. Soule concludes from case studies that the more responsive local governments are to public demands, the better off they will be in negotiating favorable agreements with their giant Asian partner. Going forward, two additional issues should be considered when analyzing Beijing’s security contractors in Africa. First, security is now included as a standard line item in the SOE budgeting process. As such, the presence of security contractors will likely increase given that SOEs will remain at the forefront of China’s outward foreign direct investment throughout Africa for the foreseeable future. Second, a sizeable number of high-value Chinese-financed projects continue to be located in insecure countries and regions. China’s security contracting portfolio will likely continue to grow in the years ahead.
African governments and NGOs are still in the early stages of dealing with Chinese security contractors and their geopolitical impacts. There is a role for the China-Africa studies community on this front, as well as the broader structures of civil society, professional associations, and academia. These actors can help close the gap in knowledge by mapping the activities of Chinese SOEs on the continent; tracking major projects; assessing the security implications of Chinese investments; and capturing key data on security contractors to generate nuanced, evidence-based, and policy-relevant research. Such work will be key considering that Chinese security contracting in Africa remains underresearched, despite all the evidence of its growth and relevance to Africa’s security and governance dynamics.
Paul Nantulya is a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies or the U.S. government.
The following appendix contains a sampling of Chinese security contractors active in Africa, and includes information on their deployments and activities.
The Hua Xin Zhong An Group was founded by PLA veterans in 2004. Since 2011, it has deployed armed guards aboard Chinese shipping fleets sailing through African waters in support of the PLA Navy’s antipiracy operations. As discussed in the paper, it is one of the few security firms permitted by the Chinese government to carry weapons abroad.
Notably, it also has a near-monopoly on providing onboard armed security for China Shipping Container Lines (CHCL) and the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), two of the world’s largest shipping operators, which are also escorted by PLA Navy vessels in the Gulf of Guinea and the Gulf of Aden. COSCO provides the logistical backbone for China’s naval operations in these maritime domains, underscoring the linkages between China’s SOEs, security contractors, and armed forces. On dry land, Hua Xin Zhong An operates like most of its peers by providing protection for important individuals, security consulting, and risk assessments for its clients. It also supplies advanced security technologies for surveillance and early warning capabilities. Its website states that its core business model is to “reduce our dependence on labor” and “use . . . technology and tools to make our service more effective.”
Another ICOCA-certified firm, the China Security and Technology Group, also provides maritime escorts known as Sea Dragons. It notes in its Mandarin listing that it recruits from China’s naval special forces brigade and that its Sea Dragons also participate in the PLA Navy’s escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea. The firm was registered in 1994 by demobilized PLA officers and initially focused on serving domestic clients involved in construction projects. It employs over 30,000 personnel and was projected to be operating in around thirty countries worldwide by 2020, according to its English listing. (The 30,000 figure includes staff in China.) Its CEO, Tang Feng, describes it as a “Going Out” force that supports “the great strategic initiative ‘Belt and Road,’” a claim that firmly positions it to help advance Chinese national security and foreign policy objectives.
The China Security and Technology Group’s African operations are coordinated from Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, and Kenya, according to its website. Its main clients are Chinese shipping fleets and SOEs, as well as Chinese diplomatic facilities including embassies in Sri Lanka and Mozambique. Its maritime navigation service runs on Beidou, a Chinese global positioning system that Beijing supplies to its BRI partners. Its website also markets other activities including risk management, security equipment, security patrols, intelligence analysis, and the designing of security plans.
Another firm called the Zhongjun Junhong Security Service has a Sea Guard branch that protects Chinese ships transiting the Gulf of Guinea to the Sulu Sea in the Philippines. Its overseas security personnel are exclusively former officers of China’s special forces, marines, and amphibious forces, according to its English company profile. Zhongjun also supports Chinese fleets and SOEs by providing offshore armed guards for logistics protection, port security, training of maritime guards, and consulting on antipiracy measures.
According to its website, it coordinates security operations through over thirty overseas branches and bases in coastal locations like Durban, South Africa; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Mombasa, Kenya, Moroni in the Comoros; and Toamasina, Madagascar.
Another major firm, Hanwei International Security Services, received ICOCA certification in 2016. It focuses on countering terrorism at sea and on land and describes itself as “familiar with the customs of Africa and the Middle East” and therefore able to “handle emergencies effectively.” It handles security for the China National Petroleum Corporation, China’s largest oil and gas contractor and operator. Hanwei also provides antipiracy and counterterrorism training, risk assessments and evaluations, intelligence gathering, and operational procedures and protocols. Its Western and Southern African operations are carried out by subsidiaries in Nigeria and South Africa, respectively. According to its company profile, by 2019 it had developed the capability to train 20,000 security personnel “to build a solid base for [providing] ‘Going Global’ security benefits for Chinese enterprises.”
As discussed earlier, the Frontier Services Group is China’s most prominent hybrid security firm designed to tap Western (primarily U.S.) security expertise. It is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, is headquartered in Beijing and Hong Kong, and is incorporated with limited liability in Bermuda. It operates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, South Sudan, South Africa, and Somalia, where it holds high-value contracts with Chinese SOEs in aviation, oil and gas, logistics, road construction, transportation, and medical evacuation. It also offers insurance packages for companies working on BRI projects in high-risk environments. Its business arm builds logistics channels for infrastructure corridors along the BRI route, while its security wing provides the required protection.
As part of its strategy to set new industry standards, the Frontier Services Group acquired a 25 percent ownership stake in the International Security and Defense College in Beijing, which trains Chinese security contractors and managers for international deployment. The firm’s closest industry peer is the UK-based China Overseas Security Services, which claims to “understand Chinese clients’ specific needs, putting it in an unparalleled position to provide them with high-quality tailored security solutions.” Its website has a section on “success stories,” which include managing security for the construction of a heavily fortified embassy in Somalia for a “major European country,” defending “vessels transiting the Indian Ocean,” and providing security for “a major multinational news organization” reporting from Libya’s war zones.